Human Interest

A Starbucks coffee cup sits on a table as the company reported supply shortages at some coffee shops on June 11, 2021 in Miami, Florida. The coffee chain said it had supply shortages for some items due to problems in the supply chain.

Starbucks’ signature logo paper and clear plastic cups are soon to be no more and will be replaced with customers bringing in their own mug in the next few years.

Michael Kobori, Starbucks chief sustainability officer, told CNN, “Our cup is ubiquitous, and we love that, but it is also this ubiquitous symbol of a throwaway society. Eliminating the disposable cup is the holy grail.”

By 2025, the coffee company wants every customer to be able to either use their own mug easily or borrow a ceramic or reusable to-go mug from their local Starbucks. That could mean rolling out more “borrow-a-mug” programs that require a deposit. By the end of 2023, Starbucks is also planning to let customers use their own personal mugs at every Starbucks in the United States and Canada, even if they order ahead or use the drive-thru. The goals don’t mean Starbucks will get rid of the paper and plastic cups, but they want to make that option “less attractive,” which won’t be easy to do since most Starbucks customers are used to the single-use option.

Amelia Landers, a vice president of product experience whose team is responsible for sustainable packaging at Starbucks, expects that this model will resonate more with customers compared to other sustainability efforts. “We are testing a number of different [borrow-a-cup] programs around the globe, including 20 different iterations and in eight different markets.”

In Seattle, Starbucks tested a beta version of such a program last year. “We developed a new cup that had a very low environmental footprint, was lightweight polypropylene, ultimately recyclable and could replace 100 single-use disposable cups,” Landers explained. For that test, customers paid a $1 deposit, and had to return the cup to a smart bin located in the store to get their dollar back. Customers also earned rewards for using the cup.

Kim Davis, who manages a store where the program was tested, said that customers were curious about the bin, and once baristas explained it to them, many were on board with the concept. “The excitement and engagement was really high among my customers and my [employees],” she said. A third-party company collected the dirty cups for cleaning, so baristas didn’t have to worry about that part of the process.

Things get a lot more complicated with Starbucks’ idea to have customers bring their own cups to the drive-thru or when they order ahead through the Starbucks app. CFO Rachel Ruggeri said that Starbucks’ drive-thru windows and its mobile orders together account for about 70% of sales at US stores operated by the company, so to achieve its zero-disposable-cups goal, Starbucks needs to figure out how to get reusables smoothly through a drive-thru, and make them available to customers who order ahead.

One option is to allow customers to drop off their cups at an earlier point in the drive-thru lane so that the drink is ready in a personal cup once they swing around to the window, Landers said. Another is for baristas to pre-make drinks when customers place their orders, and pour them into personal tumblers at the window or when they arrive at a store to pick up their order. Starbucks is also testing out cup-washing stations in stores.