Starbucks Corp. announced Jan. 21 it wants to make major moves away from single-use packaging, including plastics, as part of an effort to cut its carbon footprint and cut waste from its stores and manufacturing in half by 2030.
The company did not detail plastics-specific reductions but an open letter from CEO Kevin Johnson said the company was joining the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy global commitment and would be setting "ambitious circular targets" for its packaging.
Johnson acknowledged the complexities the company would face, noting that it failed to reach ambitious commitments it made in 2008 around recycling and packaging reusability because it underestimated the difficulty of changing consumer behavior.
But he said the Seattle-based chain was going to work closely with its supply chain and other partners on a series of sustainability initiatives, including packaging.
"Our aspiration is to become resource positive — storing more carbon than we emit, eliminating waste and providing more clean freshwater than we use," Johnson said. "While we're confident these strategies are directionally right, our eyes are wide open knowing that we do not have all the answers or fully understand all the complexities and potential consequences."
Starbucks' announcement prompted a group of shareholder activists led by As You Sow and Trillium Asset Management to withdraw a shareholder resolution against the company. As You Sow said it had been engaged in months of "constructive" talks with the company.
AYS, which had been filing shareholder resolutions with the company since 2018, said Starbucks plans to pursue parallel tracks of making existing single-use cups more recyclable while undertaking a long-term shift to more reusable or refillable containers.
"We are pleased that Starbucks has heard the message that shareholders sent over the last three years and moved decisively to position the company to press for eventual phase out of single-use beverage containers," Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president of AYS, said.
The group's resolution in 2019 was supported by 44 percent of the company shares voted.
The new announcement comes 12 years after Starbucks committed in 2008 to have 25 percent of it beverages served in reusable containers by 2015.
But it fell wildly short, with As You Sow quoting company figures for 2016, the last year statistics are available, that estimated that only 1.4 percent of beverages were served in reusables.
Johnson said those 2008 targets proved too ambitious but the company plans much stronger commitments around packaging, similar to its 20-year effort to boost ethical sourcing of coffee, including cutting the carbon footprint of its coffee in half.
"We established reusability and recycling goals in 2008 that were unprecedented for our industry but also largely dependent on radical changes in customer behavior," he said.
"What we learned was that, absent the same rigorous analysis, partnerships and investments that made us leaders in sustainable coffee and green building, our results underperformed our high expectations and underscored the need for a different approach," Johnson said.
The commitments announced Jan. 21 include moving to more plant-based foods and regenerative agriculture, in addition to cutting packaging waste.
It includes preliminary targets of 50 percent reduction by 2030 in water withdrawal in coffee production, in waste sent to landfills and in carbon emissions, including in its supply chain. More detailed commitments will be developed this year, the company said.
In an environmental baseline report the company issued with its announcement, the company said plastics account for 31 percent of its waste, the company's second-largest category after food and beverage waste.
It said plastics account for 54 percent of its packaging and contribute nearly 70 percent of carbon and water emissions from its packaging.
But plastics make up less than 5 percent of end-of-life emissions for the company's packaging, with paper making up 95 percent, because plastics are inert, the company said.