Will customers support Starbucks’ plan to revamp its iconic cup in the name of sustainability?

In the bustling city of Tempe, Arizona, a seemingly inconspicuous act takes place at a local Starbucks. Bethany Patton, a cancer researcher at Arizona State University, approaches the counter with her pink mug in hand.

With precision, she places her cherished possession into a diminutive dishwasher, no larger than a shoebox.

As the machine springs to life, spinning and whirring, water cascades within, cleansing the vessel of any impurities.

After a mere 90 seconds, the dishwasher’s door opens, releasing a gentle wisp of steam. A skilled barista swiftly retrieves the mug, tenderly drying it with a practiced hand.

The stage is now set for the creation of Patton’s desired beverage – a refreshing 16-ounce Starbucks double espresso on ice.

However, there is an added incentive for Patton’s choice to bring her own cup – a commendable effort in reducing waste and preserving the environment.

As she eagerly awaits her order, she relishes in the knowledge that she will receive a generous $1 discount, a small reward for her conscious decision.

Patton’s sentiment is echoed by her two companions, who proudly clutch their own reusable cups, united in their commitment to sustainability.

The absence of the disposable Starbucks cup is just as remarkable as what individuals are actually carrying. This cup has become an emblem of a world where the term “disposable” is excessively employed.

For more than a generation, it has served as a fundamental element of consumer culture, initially within the United States and subsequently on a global scale.

The throwaway cup, adorned with the iconic emerald logo portraying a mermaid with flowing locks reminiscent of ocean waves, has become so prevalent that it is now considered an accessory.

It has effectively conveyed a message to the world: I am consuming the most renowned coffee brand on the planet.

However, in this current era where sustainability is increasingly valued and can even contribute to profitable business practices, it appears that the Starbucks disposable cup may be on the brink of extinction, and the unexpected catalyst behind this transformation is none other than Starbucks itself.


In an ambitious move towards environmental sustainability, Starbucks has set a target to completely eliminate the use of disposable cups by the year 2030.

This endeavor is driven by the company’s recognition of the detrimental impact that disposable cups have on both waste generation and greenhouse gas emissions.

With a history of setting lofty sustainability goals across their global operations, Starbucks aims to align their practices with what they perceive to be the right course of action for the environment. While some of their sustainability objectives have been successfully achieved, such as the certification of new stores for energy efficiency, others have been revised or abandoned altogether.

As an illustration, back in 2008, Starbucks announced its intention to ensure that 100% of its cups would be either recyclable or reusable by 2015. However, this objective remains a considerable distance from being realized in the present day.

The current push to revamp the cup industry is driven by a clear business imperative. The production of disposable items like cups contributes to the emission of greenhouse gases, which in turn contributes to the warming of the planet and the occurrence of extreme weather events and other manifestations of climate change.

This contradicts the growing expectations of customers who now demand that companies actively participate in finding solutions to combat climate change.

However, while customers desire environmentally conscious companies, this does not mean that they are willing to sacrifice convenience.

Moreover, there is a concern that eliminating the millions of paper and plastic cups used annually could potentially harm Starbucks.

After all, these cups, when held by customers, serve as a form of advertising, creating a sense of ubiquity for the Starbucks brand.

At the Starbucks branch where Patton purchases her coffee, disposable paper or plastic cups are already not served.

Instead, customers who do not bring their own cups are provided with a reusable plastic one, which can be returned to designated bins around the campus.

This initiative is one of the twenty-four experimental programs implemented over the past two years, all aimed at transforming how the world’s largest coffee maker serves its beloved java.

Achieving the ambitious objective of reducing a company’s waste, water consumption, and carbon emissions by fifty percent by the year 2030 is undoubtedly a formidable challenge that necessitates a meticulous and strategic approach.

The path to realizing such ambitious sustainability targets is riddled with complexities and risks that demand careful consideration and adept management.

This endeavor not only tests the company’s commitment to environmental stewardship but also serves as a telling example of how organizations translate lofty aspirations into tangible outcomes.

The multifaceted nature of this undertaking necessitates the implementation of comprehensive measures across various facets of the company’s operations, including supply chain management, production processes, and energy consumption.

Furthermore, it requires a harmonious integration of sustainable practices into the very fabric of the organization, instilling a culture of environmental consciousness and responsibility at every level.

The successful execution of this mission necessitates a holistic and collaborative approach, involving the active participation and cooperation of all stakeholders, from employees and suppliers to customers and shareholders.

It is through such concerted efforts and a steadfast commitment to sustainability that companies can truly make a meaningful and lasting impact on the environment, setting a precedent for others to follow.

In the quest for a sustainable future, Starbucks envisions a revolutionary transformation of its iconic cup. Michael Kobori, the head of sustainability at Starbucks, describes this vision as the company’s Holy Grail.

The goal is to preserve the recognizable symbol that has become synonymous with Starbucks, while transitioning to a reusable cup.

This innovative approach not only aligns with Starbucks’ commitment to environmental responsibility but also presents an opportunity to redefine the brand and its values.

Starbucks aims to inspire change throughout its entire supply chain, encouraging suppliers to provide recycled materials and urging partners, such as universities and other establishments that house Starbucks stores, to embrace the challenges and benefits of adopting reusable cups.

By taking this bold step towards sustainability, Starbucks hopes to cast itself and the siren in a new and enlightened light, setting an example for others in the industry to follow.

Erin Simon, the vice president for plastic waste and business at the World Wildlife Fund, emphasizes the critical role that major companies can play in addressing the issue at hand.

However, she firmly asserts that significant change can only be achieved through a combined effort of corporate collaboration and government regulation.

Simon believes that no single institution, organization, or sector possesses the capacity to bring about this transformation independently.

Recognizing the complexity and magnitude of the problem, she highlights the necessity of a unified approach involving the active participation and commitment of both private enterprises and governmental bodies.

By working together, these stakeholders can effectively tackle the challenges associated with plastic waste and pave the way for a sustainable future.

The recent changes implemented at Starbucks are poised to create significant ripple effects within the company and beyond.

According to Jon Solorzano, a highly regarded Los Angeles lawyer specializing in advising companies on the development of climate-friendly operations and disclosures, Starbucks has an extensive network of suppliers involved in the manufacturing of their cups.

This aspect, referred to as “environmental, social, and governance,” plays a crucial role in ensuring sustainable practices throughout the supply chain.

Solorzano aptly describes the process of implementing such changes as akin to turning an aircraft carrier around, emphasizing that even seemingly minor adjustments can pose substantial operational challenges for an organization of Starbucks’ magnitude.

This highlights the intricate nature of effecting meaningful change within a large corporation and underscores the importance of considering the broader implications of such shifts.

Starbucks is not the first company to embark on the journey towards promoting the use of reusable cups. Numerous large companies in Europe, such as RECUP in Germany, have already adopted the practice of using reusable cups and other sustainable food packaging.

Similarly, local coffee houses in cities like San Francisco have long been striving to reduce their reliance on disposable paper and plastic products.

However, as the world’s largest coffee company, boasting an impressive presence with over 37,000 stores in 86 countries and generating revenues of $32 billion last year, Starbucks possesses the potential to drive significant change across the entire industry.

Consequently, the company must recognize that its ability to adapt and lead in this area is crucial, as failure to do so could negatively impact its reputation in the eyes of its customers.

Irene Linayao-Putman, a public health worker from San Diego, emphasizes the importance of sustainability when making her purchasing decisions.

She states, “I’ll always choose the more sustainable company,” underscoring the growing demand for environmentally conscious practices among consumers.

However, the path to achieving sustainability in terms of cup containers extends beyond merely making a different choice or investing in new technologies.

It necessitates navigating a complex network of technological advancements, seeking out suppliers who share similar values, and testing the limits of consumer behavior change.

For Starbucks, this means simultaneously pursuing two seemingly contradictory objectives: transitioning towards exclusive use of reusable cups while also developing disposable cups that utilize fewer materials and are more recyclable.

Moreover, the company must be mindful of how its actions are perceived by the public. Managing the optics of this transformation is crucial to maintaining a positive image and ensuring that sustainability and increased business can coexist harmoniously.

Even 10-year-old Aria June, after purchasing Starbucks in Seattle, humorously remarked, “They are just trying to get more buyers.” However, prompted by her father, she acknowledged that sustainability and business growth can indeed go hand in hand.

This sentiment underscores the importance of striking a delicate balance between environmental responsibility and commercial success as Starbucks embarks on its ambitious journey towards sustainable cup solutions.


The Arizona State store has implemented a commendable initiative to promote sustainability by offering customers a reusable plastic cup adorned with the Starbucks logo if they fail to bring their own.

In doing so, the store encourages customers to adopt eco-friendly habits while also rewarding them with a $1 discount when they return the cup.

Remarkably, the university has collaborated with Starbucks to facilitate this process by providing bins conveniently placed around campus where customers can deposit their used cups.

These cups are then collected, washed, and returned to the store, ensuring their continued use. However, in cases where the cups are too damaged to be reused or when disposable Starbucks cold drink cups and other plastic items are found in the trash, the university’s Circular Living Lab steps in.

Here, these items are meticulously processed by being shredded, melted, and extruded into long, lumber-like pieces.

These pieces are then skillfully cut, sanded, and assembled into boxes, which serve as the return bins for the reusable cups.

Although this process incurs some energy and production costs, Tyler Eglen, the project manager of the lab, emphasizes that using recycled materials is always more energy-efficient and emits less CO2 than utilizing virgin plastics.

Over the course of several years, Starbucks has been actively working towards increasing the proportion of recycled material in their disposable paper cups.

Notably, in certain markets last year, Starbucks introduced single-use paper cups that contained 30% recycled material, a substantial increase compared to the previous ratio of 10%.

The company has set forth a comprehensive plan to ensure that all cups across their U.S. stores will contain 30% recycled material by early 2025.

However, this ambitious goal poses challenges due to the limitations of recycled paper material in effectively containing hot liquids. The paper pulp derived from recycled cups possesses shorter fibers compared to virgin pulp, resulting in reduced rigidity, which is particularly crucial when it comes to maintaining the temperature of hot coffee.

The extent to which recycled material can be utilized in cup manufacturing depends on the availability and efficiency of recycling infrastructure in a given area.

While major cities generally possess well-established recycling systems, numerous communities worldwide lack the necessary capacity for recycling.

Additionally, the lining inside the cup, which plays a vital role in preventing the rapid degradation of the paper when in contact with hot liquids, is made of polyethylene, a heat-resistant plastic.

Although the liner constitutes only around 5% of the total cup, it significantly contributes to the overall carbon footprint. Furthermore, the plastic lid also poses a challenge in terms of sustainability.


In the pursuit of sustainability and positive public relations, the ultimate goal for Starbucks is to completely eliminate the use of disposable items.

Despite numerous tests and advancements in technology, there are inherent limitations in the extent to which waste can be reduced through the utilization of disposable paper and plastic cups.

To achieve long-term reductions in waste, the company must prioritize the adoption of reusable cups. However, it is important to acknowledge that Starbucks still has a considerable distance to cover in this regard.

Following the reintroduction of reusable cups in select stores in July 2021, after a prolonged period during the COVID-19 pandemic where they were not utilized, a mere 1.2% of global sales in the fiscal year 2022 were attributed to reusables.

Unfortunately, Starbucks has refrained from disclosing the specific data pertaining to the number of disposable cups it consumes on an annual basis.

Despite the increasing awareness of sustainability and climate change, it is reasonable to assume that a significant number of Starbucks’ disposable items ultimately end up in landfills.

This is evident even in Seattle, a progressive city with a well-established recycling infrastructure, where numerous Starbucks cups can be found in garbage cans outside their stores.

However, Valencia Villanueva, a barista at the Arizona State store, has observed a growing consciousness among customers regarding the cup-washing machine and the “borrowed” cup program. This gives her confidence that the future lies in reusable cups.

It is important to note that individuals are not actively seeking to be wasteful, even if they are relinquishing an item that has become somewhat of a global status symbol. Valencia asserts that no customer has complained or expressed a desire for single-use cups.