Starbucks capitulates to demands from anti-plastics activist group

After holding Starbucks Corp. hostage with the threat of another pending shareholder proposal, activist group As You Sow has withdrawn that proposal based on “months of constructive dialogue” that resulted in Starbucks agreeing to a reduction in the use of plastic.

Starbucks sign

A shareholder proposal was filed in 2019 that asked the company to renew a “failed effort” to serve 25% of beverages in reusable containers and to start recycling packaging in developing markets. As You Sow said that while the shareholder proposal was supported by 44% of shares voted, valued in excess of $20 billion, when the company did not adequately respond, the proposal was re-filed for 2020, which sparked a “more productive dialogue.”

According to a news release from As You Sow, Starbucks has signaled its intention to move from single-use cups and plastics to reusable packaging. The company also has committed to develop new reusable container goals, and to cut global packaging waste 50% by 2030. The company also told As You Sow it will “pursue a parallel track of making existing single-use cups more recyclable and more frequently recycled in the short term, while pursuing long-term efforts to shift to reusable or refillable containers.”

Starbucks said it will also continue its NextGen Cup Challenge, initiated in response to a 2018 proposal by As You Sow, which seeks to alter the composition of paper cups to make them more recyclable and compostable in many markets. The company also “pledged” to undertake “comprehensive market research and trials on consumer adoption of reusable containers over the next year and set a strengthened reusables goal, or range of goals, in 12 months based on research results.”

While all of that sounds good and might be enough to get As You Sow off its back for a while, Starbucks will soon find out what other brand owners are discovering: Recyclable plastics have a better environmental footprint than paper, which requires a lot of water—a scarce global resource—to produce. I’m not sure what they will find for their NextGen cups, but unless paper is lined with polyethylene it won’t hold hot or cold liquids.

As for the reusable idea, I’m assuming Starbucks will start selling reusable coffee mugs. They already sell reusable glasses for cold drinks made from polycarbonate, I assume? I’ve picked them up and tapped on them—it could be polystyrene, I suppose. Of course if someone wants to take out their hot coffee, they could buy a mug or bring in their own mugs or stainless-steel thermos cups. As You Sow references competitor Blue Bottle, which I wrote about recently, and its commitment to eliminating disposable single-use cups and replacing them with reusable cups. But there are problems with that, and as of yet I’ve not heard back from Blue Bottle about the increased water and electricity costs.

Health department rules typically have some restrictions on restaurants filling a cup or glass brought in from outside the store. Rules also restrict taking a used cup or drink glass behind the counter for refills. They could begin using drink glasses and mugs made from polycarbonate that would withstand reuse and sterilization and washing in hot soapy water, as required for sanitary purposes. The energy used to run dishwashers all day with hot water makes any CO2 savings moot and increases the cost to Starbucks, i.e. consumers.

As You Sow isn’t really as concerned about the environment as they would lead us to believe. They just want to get rid of all plastic, despite the fact that plastic used in single-use food-service applications has health and safety benefits. It saves resources, reduces energy use and is an overall better choice. Recyclability is the first good option for capturing the value of plastics. To that end, I do agree with As You Sow calling out Starbucks for the lack of recycling bins at its thousands of stores globally. That would go a long way toward boosting the recycling rate of single-use plastics.

Image courtesy Marco Paköeningrat/flickr

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