Starbucks’ Dirty Secret

January 23, 2018

Four billion cups a year end up in landfills, despite Starbucks’ promise of a 100 percent recyclable cup.

Update: The day before its 2018 annual shareholder meeting, Starbucks announced a new commitment to create a recyclable cup by 2021. Learn more

It’s 7am. You drag yourself out of bed, pull on your work clothes, brush your teeth and hop on the bus. You get off at your stop, and head to the nearest Starbucks for a cup of coffee to wake up your foggy brain. You sip the delicious, caffeinated concoction on your walk to work, and the cup’s empty by the time you arrive. You look for a place to toss it—but wait, do you throw it away or put it in a recycling bin?

This is the story of the Starbucks cup.

Most people don’t know this, but Starbucks paper cups are not recyclable in most cities across the U.S. because the cups are lined with plastic. In today’s world, a paper cup is no longer just a paper cup. It’s plastic pollution.

These plastic-lined Starbucks cups are a huge problem for our waste and recycling streams. Although Starbucks cups are accepted for recycling in a few major cities in the U.S. (New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.), the rest go into the trash, to the tune of more than 4 billion cups a year. That’s 8,000 Starbucks cups each minute that are harvested from fresh-cut trees, used once, and sent straight to the landfill.

Even in cities where Starbucks paper cups are accepted for recycling, it remains unknown how many cups actually make it all the way through the recycling process. The plastic lining is inefficient and difficult to recycle; it adheres to the paper and can clog the recycling equipment, limiting the amount of high-quality paper fiber that can be captured and repurposed. Oftentimes, the cups ultimately still get tossed in the trash.

Our world faces an enormous challenge over the growing mounds of trash and plastic pollution, in our cities, our beaches and deep in our oceans. By 2050, the world’s oceans are projected to have more plastic in them than fish. And yet, 8,000 Starbucks cups per minute are thrown away. Scientists were recently shocked to discover the world’s seabeds and ocean floors are covered with countless tiny fragments of microplastics, all of which can travel up the food chain to humans. Our world’s waters are full of plastic.

Starbucks cups are contributing to this pollution problem, all because of the plastic lining. If the cups were lined with a different material, one that disintegrated at the same rate as paper, they would be much easier to recycle with conventional recycling equipment. Then, everyone could put their Starbucks coffee cups into the paper recycling bin, instead of straight into the trash.

That’s where the #BetterCup campaign comes in. has worked for decades to push corporations to take responsibility for their pollution, and to change their business model to support, not harm our climate. Right now, we’re calling on Starbucks to make a better cup—a 100% recyclable cup without a plastic lining.

The technology for a better cup is out there. Starbucks is a leader, and if they put their mind to it, they can create a recyclable cup. Who led the way on large-scale sourcing of sustainably-grown coffee? Starbucks. Who led the way on providing health benefits for domestic partnerships? Starbucks.

Nearly a decade ago, Starbucks’ own leadership acknowledged its plastic-lined paper cup is one of the company’s biggest environmental liabilities, and they pledged to create a 100% recyclable cup. Nine years later, we’re still waiting for Starbucks to deliver on that promise.

Starbucks is feeling pressure from consumers to change—its own website notes it gets more customer comments about cup recycling than any other issue. It’s time for Starbucks executives to stop dragging their feet and become true industry leaders.

We know Starbucks takes sustainability seriously. If Starbucks applies the same ingenuity to creating a 100% recyclable cup without a plastic lining, it can do it—and in the process, revolutionize the entire coffee industry. It would make a huge difference to landfill waste and ocean pollution around the world.

For the past year, we’ve been calling on Starbucks to do better. We created a “Trashed: Secret of the Starbucks Cup” report and filmed a parody video with Spencer the Hipster on how ridiculous it is to use a coffee cup once and throw it away.

We’ve shown up outside dozens of Starbucks stores, erected a giant Starbucks Cup Wall outside Starbucks headquarters, and paraded our 12+ foot tall Starbucks Cup Monster outside the company’s annual shareholders meeting.

We know Starbucks leadership is hearing us—they’ve even talked with us about our campaign. But their new CEO Kevin Johnson hasn’t yet made a 100% recyclable paper cup a priority. When he does, we’ll be right there alongside him to celebrate this major milestone and success.

Join the thousands of people who have sent a message to Starbucks CEO asking him to be the change, not part of the global pollution problem at And remember: Bring your reusable coffee mug with you wherever you go.

Republished with permission from AlterNet. This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.