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Will baristas begin asking, “Paper or Plastic?”

There are a handful of companies for which announcing a new product not only makes headlines, but also creates a new trend. So when Starbucks rolled out its reusable $1 plastic cups, I had a feeling it would be the talk of the town—for coffee lovers, that is.   

There are a handful of companies for which announcing a new product not only makes headlines, but also creates a new trend. So when Starbucks rolled out its reusable $1 plastic cups, I had a feeling it would be the talk of the town—for coffee lovers, that is.   

When I talked with Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact for Starbucks, regarding the cups made out of 100% virgin polypropylene, he told me that one main reason the company turned to plastic was to cut down on paper waste. Starbucks uses about 4 billion disposable cups annually and the interior wax coating makes them difficult to recycle.

The reusable cups were first tested in more than 600 stores across the Pacific Northwest and within a month the company found that the use of reusable cups had increased 26% in those stores compared to a year earlier.  

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

More than a quarter of Americans (28%) surveyed have already bought or plan on purchasing one of Starbucks' new $1 reusable coffee cups, according to a YouGov Omnibus survey taken at the beginning of January. The responses are from 1000 people.

Irrespective of whether they would purchase a cup, seven out of 10 respondents believed it was a good idea, with four out of 10 saying it was a "very good idea."  About 12% of non-Starbucks customers aim to purchase one.

Still, even though most seem to think it was a good idea, more than half of respondents (57%) said they probably or definitely wouldn't purchase a reusable cup, a response buried in this stat report for some reason. What was more odd was that this report was called, "Starbucks reusable cups are a hit."

Anyway, two thirds (66%) of respondents have not heard of Starbucks' cup offer. Although 38% of responders thought that Starbucks should be applauded for its attempts to go green and 23% think it is generally an ethical company. A minority of responders was skeptical; 13% wondered if it is was a publicity stunt. 

New plastics trend
Publicity stunt or not, Starbucks' goal is to have 5% of its cups reusable by 2015. I can't help but wonder if Starbucks may start a trend for consumers to use plastic reusable cups. After all, many believe that Starbucks helped create our modern-day coffee culture where it's completely acceptable to drink a $4 coffee with interesting combinations such as a peppermint mocha and pumpkin spice latte.  

Since I'm both a plastics writer and a coffee addict, I figured I would do some on-the-ground field reporting to get a feel for the cups. I went into a nearby Starbucks and saw that they had a nice display for the cups on the counter to the side of the register. As I gave my order, I heard people from the drive-thru also requesting the reusable plastic cup so it sounds like some people have already responded to this product.

I order my typical coffee and when the barista handed me my drink, it was perfectly measured to the top, but I had to put the lid on myself. I asked him about that and he said they're not allowed to put the plastic lid on the cup due to cross-contamination issues. Makes sense to a point, but what about the plastic lids that go on the paper cup? Isn't that also a concern for cross-contamination?

The overall cup did feel light but there was definitely an awkward moment where I had trouble getting the lid on and the barista couldn't help me out. However, that moment passed when the lid finally snapped on. I took a sip and it tasted exactly the same. I was impressed.

Still, it was a bit odd to carry the cup with me all day. PlasticsToday had meetings that day and I kept the cup with me the entire time, even when we all went out to lunch.

I haven't been back to Starbucks since I initially bought the cup, so we'll see if I remember to bring it each time; truthfully I haven't had much experience with reusables. But I'm definitely going to try because I do like the idea and was tired of all that waste from the paper cups.

It's an interesting idea and time will tell if consumers will make the move from paper to plastic for coffee cups. For more information about the cups, including Hanna telling me the company's desire to use post-consumer resin, be sure to check out my article on PlasticsToday.

TAGS: Packaging
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