Starbucks talks reusable plastic cups, wants to use PCR in the future

January 10, 2013

While Starbucks is known for its iconic paper cups, the coffee giant recently turned to plastics to help support its sustainability efforts.

Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact for Starbucks, told PlasticsToday that the Seattle-based coffee giant's $1 reusable plastic cups, which resemble the paper cups all the way down to the company's logo, were launched as a way to reduce the company's environmental footprint.

"The world has struggled to reduce single-serve packaging for decades, this is not a new issue," he said. "What Starbucks has the ability to do is test new concepts and we have the ability to do direct research with customers. The reusable cups are one piece of a broad strategy."  

There are plenty of barriers when it comes to consumers' acceptance of reusable packaging of any kind. Hanna said the look, feel and price all contribute to these barriers. Starbucks said by offering the cups at the low price point of $1 and a dime discount off for every usage in store, the cup pays for itself after 10 drinks.

Starbucks worked with a number of suppliers to make these cups a viable option for consumers. The company performed a life cycle analysis on a number of resins, but found polypropylene (PP) provided the best solution for the company's goals. The reusable cups are thermoformed with 100% virgin PP, which includes the lid.

"The exciting thing about PP is that it's one of the most versatile resins out there," he said. "From cradle-to-cradle, PP offers one of the best environmental stories, it's just a winner all around."

Each time a customer brings in the new cup into the stores it will be cleaned with boiling water. Hanna said the company performed significant dishwashing tests and found it can be used up to 170 times without any impact to the cup itself based on potential leakage and the ability for the cup to maintain its integrity. Since the cup is made out of PP, it's also recyclable at anytime.  

One concern many consumers have when a new reusable food packaging is offered in plastics is if it has BPA or not. While PP has never contained BPA, Hanna acknowledges that the food industry as a whole could do better to educate consumers about that.

"There is opportunity for clarification and a lot of work and improvement to be done so customers can understand the differences between the plastic resins, such as which ones contain BPA and which don't," he said. "PP is our resin of choice due to the safety of the product, there's no question it's a good plastic to work with."

Hanna doesn't want to see the innovation stop now that this product has been officially released to the public. The company wants to be able to eventually use post-consumer resin in this cup.

"We are focusing on what we can do to reduce our footprint and one of the key aspects around sustainability and packaging is using low impact and post-consumer material," Hanna said. "Frankly, there's not a lot of access to post-consumer plastics in food grade applications."  

He cited a past example when the company made the initiative to start using post-consumer fiber in its paper cup. It wasn't an easy endeavor to achieve by any means; for instance, it took a significant amount of time to get FDA approval. Still, the company is willing to go the extra mile in order to offer a complete sustainable solution.

"Sustainability needs to involve all players in the system and we really want to challenge the plastics industry as one of its missions to offer this," he said. "We know significant infrastructure improvements need to happen to close the loop on recycling, but we would love nothing more than to use post-consumer resin in this product." 

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