Does the Starbucks Reusable Plastic Cup Actually Reduce Waste?

Starbucks recycable $1 plastic cups

Starbucks Reusable Plastic Cups are an alternative to paper cups (Image:

I love Starbucks. It’s my go-to spot for late-night study sessions. (The baristas know me by name, #embarrassing.) Last week I spied Starbucks new reusable plastic cups that sell for $1. I had a mini internal physiological earthquake as I approached the counter. For years, I have eagerly awaited this moment!

Now some of you are probably thinking I’m a complete weirdo for being so obsessive about Starbucks offering  a reusable plastic coffee cup (you do have a point). But these aren’t just more paper and wax Starbucks disposable cups. This cup is meant to revolutionize the way companies and society think about ‘to-go’ beverage containers. But do these Starbucks reusable plastic cups represent a true green marketing revolution — or are they just a green marketing ploy?

Introducing Starbucks Reusable Plastic Cups

For the past few years, Starbucks has hosted an annual “Cup Summit” that brings together the top dogs in materials engineering and packaging with Starbucks’ executives to strategize how to reduce disposable paper cup waste.  The latest product from this gathering is their new reusable plastic cup, a look-a-like to their paper ones made from a ‘recyclable’ plastic. As an incentive to bring it in for a refill,  (the Starbucks baristas will wash it out with boiling water for you), customers receive ten-cents off their drink.

Starbucks-Reusable-1017x1024 Sounds pretty cool to me. Starbucks has created an incentive for coffee lovers to reduce the amount of material wasted by creating reusable cups, and making them more affordable than the $7 stainless steel coffee cups they sell in their stores and on-line.

Starbucks reusable plastic cup display encourages coffee drinkers to reduce cup waste.

More Questions than Starbucks is Answering 

Time to give Starbucks a pat on the back for their green marketing and green design efforts? Should we applaud Starbucks for these reusable plastic cups and thank them for being a leader in sustainability? (Enter science nerd side of me stage left). Not so fast!….I’ve got more questions than Starbucks’ website seems to be answering.

What about all the energy needed to create these reusable plastic cups? Are we just wasting more energy to create these rather than continue to sip from the single-use disposable paper cups? (How many paper cups does one need to avoid before offsetting the impacts of the plastic?)

WHTW-Waste-at-Work-Survey-Link-1103141 (1)Chances are, Starbucks regulars like me are going to wash these reusable plastic cups in the dishwasher (top shelf).  This will require a lot of energy, soap and hot water (ditto for washing in the sink). How does this compare to the environmental impacts of a disposable paper cup?

As emblazoned on the cups, they are recyclable* with an asterisk — noting that they are not actually recyclable in all areas. So chances are they will wind up in landfills where they’ll likely sit for 500 years. Will Starbucks take them back for recycling? I didn’t see any signage or recycling bins to that effect.

I’ve heard these Starbucks reusable plastic cups are produced in China, so I’m wondering if they are traveling further than the throwaway paper cups – producing more greenhouse gases in the process.

To date, despite checking their website, asking the Starbucks baristas, and perusing other reports, I have not been able to find answers to my questions.  Until I do, I’m sticking with my stainless steel coffee cup for my caffeine boost fill-ups  (and I still get the ten-cents off).

What do you think – does this Starbucks reusable and recyclable plastic cup really help to cut down on waste or not? Is it good green marketing — or simply greenwash? Or perhaps.

This article was originally published on the website.
Miranda Farley is a graduate at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management master’s program at the UC Santa Barbara. Miranda earned her Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology and Environmental Studies at Santa Clara University and currently works as a solar consultant at Sungevity.