Updated — Starbucks Corp. is pledging millions of dollars, and partnering with a well-known recycling organization, to try to solve its cup problem.
The coffee giant has come under scrutiny in recent years over the recyclability of its paper cups that are lined with polyethylene.
But the company announced March 20 that it will commit $10 million to the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners to find “a global end-to-end solution that would allow cups around the world to be diverted from landfills.”
CEO Kevin Johnson, at a shareholder's meeting March 21, maintained that the company's current cup is “recyclable.”
“We share a common goal with you,” he said, in response to a shareholder question about whether the company would commit to creating a widely recycled cup. “I'll just remind our shareholders in the audience that our current cup is a recyclable cup. Unfortunately, for that cup to be recyclable, it requires cities and municipalities to invest in the equipment for recycling.”
And there's the rub.
While the plastic-lined cup is recyclable in Johnson's view, a former Starbucks barista and volunteer for an environmental group called Stand.earth pushed back on that idea.
Shiloh Britt asked whether the company would commit to finding a recyclable solution this time around after failing to do so twice in the past.
Stand.earth maintains that Starbuck's cups are only recyclable in just four major cities in the United States.
“We are searching for a better solution. We have a common goal with you,” Johnson said.
Called the NextGen Cup Challenge, the company's $10 million effort aims to recycle the cups into “anything that can use recycled material” including other cups or napkins, the company said.
“No one is satisfied with the incremental industry progress made to date, it's just not moving fast enough. So today, we are declaring a moon shot for sustainability to work together as an industry to bring a fully recyclable and compostable cup to the market, with a three-year ambition,” said Colleen Chapman, vice president of Starbucks global social impact overseeing sustainability, in a statement.
Actor Adrian Greiner, best known for his starring role in the HBO series “Entourage,” showed up at the shareholders' meeting and tried to put pressure on the company to take action when it comes to plastics. He spoke on behalf of As You Sow, a foundation that promotes corporate social responsibility and wants Starbucks to change its use of plastics.
Word of the NextGen Cup Challenge came in the face of that shareholder's resolution, which ultimately failed, that took the company to task on its use of plastics.
The proposal by As You Sow, a foundation that promotes corporate social responsibility, was presented by actor Adrian Grenier, who has become a voice in the ocean plastics conversation.
Grenier's proposal requested the “phase out of plastic straws and the renewed commitment by the company to fulfill on its failed sustainability goals regarding plastic,” he said at the meeting.
He also called the $10 million commitment “impressive, certainly. And I applaud this tip toe in the right direction.”
But he questioned the company's commitment for positive impact when it is rapidly opening stores in China, an area of the world “that often has little or no formal recycling systems.”
“Starbuck's moonshot must shoot beyond the paper cup,” Grenier said, playing off the quote from Chapman.
At one point during the hours-long annual meeting, Johnson said, “We remain committed. We do have a recyclable cup today. We know there is more to do. And we are making the investment in partnership with this third party [Closed Loop].”
“Through this partnership, the Challenge will enable leading innovators and entrepreneurs with financial, technical, and expert resources to fast-track global solutions, help get those solutions to shelf, through the recovery system and back into the supply chain” said Rob Kaplan, managing director of Closed Loop Partners, in a statement.
Starbucks, meanwhile, also said the company is currently working on a new “bio-liner” made from plant-based materials for the company's paper cups.
While some municipalities can handle the plastics-lined cups, Foodservice Packaging Institute President Lynn Dyer said there are challenges.
“The truth is no cup is recyclable until it is widely accepted by communities, recycling facilities and paper mills,” Dyer said in a statement included as part of Starbucks funding announcement.
“Starbucks just pledged to fix its 4 billion throw away cups per year problem — but since the coffee giant has made similar promises before, we'll be here to hold CEO Kevin Johnson's feet to the fire on keeping this new commitment,” said Todd Paglia, executive director of Stand.earth, in a statement.
That group, which is part of a larger campaign aimed at Starbuck's plastics use, said it still needed more information.
The “Starbucks: Break Free from Plastic” is a campaign organized by environmental groups, including Stand.earth, and seeking a 100 percent recyclable paper cup without a plastic lining. It also wants the company to stop using single use plastics, including straws. Starbucks also is being called on to publicly report the amount and types of plastics used in packaging.
While announcing the proposal from As You Sow was defeated, he company said final vote totals will be available later.