In recent months, the environmental impact of plastic straws has been a much-discussed topic; today, one of the world's leading drink companies joined the conversation. This morning, Starbucks announced a plan to eliminated single-use plastic straws at its store locations globally by 2020.
Since cold drinks comprised 50% of Starbucks' sales last year, the company knew it had to come up with an alternate cold beverage vessel if it was going to get rid of plastic straws. That's where Emily Alexander, an engineer in Starbucks' Global Research and Development department, came in. Alexander and her team first set out to develop the brand new cold cup lid — it's the clear "adult sippy cup" thing you may have recently seen photos of circulating around the internet — as a way for Starbucks to showcase its draft nitro cold brew and cold foam. After using the cold cup lids at select locations, Starbucks realised it might be the answer to its plastic straw dilemma.
When you first look at the new cold cup lids, it really just looks like a clear version of the lids used on hot drinks. Even in its press release announcing its move away from straws, Starbucks calls the new lid "a cleaner, less-ridged version of a hot cup lid." However, the lid apparently took about 10 weeks for Alexander and her team to develop, and the seemingly simple idea is still unlike any straw alternative we've seen yet.
Since the new cold cup lid is made of plastic, at first, we didn't understand how it was more environmentally friendly. However, Starbucks clarified that the lids are made of polypropylene, which can apparently be "widely recycled." Chris Milne, director of packaging sourcing for Starbucks, says, "By nature, the straw isn’t recyclable and the lid is, so we feel this decision is more sustainable and more socially responsible."
Nicholas Mallos, director of the Trash Free Seas Program at Ocean Conservancy, agrees the lids are better than straws, although they still aren't the best option. "The best thing you can do for the ocean is to bring a reusable cup or tumbler wherever you go...But the new cold cup lid represents a significant reduction in an item — straws — that we know negatively affects wildlife...Removing the straw makes the entire cup-and-lid combination fully recyclable," he tells Refinery29 via email.
Even though the new lids are recyclable, Julie Andersen, global executive director of the Plastic Oceans Foundation, points out that Starbucks still can't ensure that the lids will actually be recycled. "Unfortunately, even if more recyclable materials are used, it still promotes single use plastics and ultimately waste we cannot handle. With less than 10% of plastics being recycled globally, encouraging single use plastic still equals waste promotion, as long as there is no accountability for the recycling of the material," she explains to Refinery29 via email. So, it seems undisputed that reusable tumblers are the most environmentally friendly solution.
For consumers to start bringing their own cups into Starbucks, however, there needs to be what Kara Nielsen, vice president of trends and marketing at CCD Innovation, calls a "behaviour change." When news broke back in May that McDonald's shareholders would be voting on whether or not to phase out plastic straws at all its locations worldwide, Nielsen assured Refinery29 that behaviour changes can happen. "They take time and messaging — think about the signs in the grocery store parking lots that say, 'bring in your reusable bags' — and bit by bit even people like my mother have reusable bags in their cars, so this is a real indication of consumer behaviour change." Perhaps, Starbucks will soon put up signs outside its stores saying, "BYOT."
The new cold cup lids will begin replacing single-use plastic straws at Starbucks locations in Seattle and Vancouver first. Locations outside those markets will then start the transition, which will continue through 2020. Though the new lids are the primary replacement, Starbucks will still have some straw options. For instance, Frappuccinos will be the only cold drinks that won't come standard with the new lid. Instead, they will be served with either a paper straw or a compostable straw. Additionally, customers can still request these more environmentally-friendly kinds of straws when they order cold drinks that aren't Frappuccinos.
Though Nielsen says history proves that consumers are willing to change their behaviour, whether or not consumers are willing to pay extra for change is another question entirely. "Kind of like when you pay the extra five pence for a bag at the grocery store, how much will they pay for a straw? A penny?" When asked if the new packaging and straws made of alternative materials would affect pricing, a Starbucks representative told Refinery29 in an email, "As a business, we are working with our suppliers to scale this globally and reduce costs with the goal of making this short-term investment an anticipated net-neutral impact for our business by 2020." In other words, TBD.