Starbucks reusable cups consumption rises by 150% after latte levy trial

Why the paper cup is hard to recycle

As basic as it looks, from an engineering perspective, today’s disposable cup is close to perfect. It doesn’t leak, break, melt or warp. It doesn’t change the way beverages taste. It’s cheap enough to be mass produced. It’s light and stackable, so it can be easily transported and stored.

Which is why it’s so difficult to invent a greener alternative. An eco-friendly cup has to first meet all those requirements — and then break down easily.

There are some cups on the market that are advertised as “compostable,” but they generally don’t degrade in the same way banana peels or egg shells do in your household compost bin. Instead, they must be processed in industrial composting facilities, which are still rare.

And while technically, Starbucks’ cups can be recycled under the right circumstances, they usually are not. Most facilities don’t recycle paper cups because to do so, they would have to separate the cups’ plastic lining from the paper. Many recyclers find that process to be more trouble than it’s worth. If recycling facilities try to recycle paper cups without separating out materials first, the plastic lining is likely to jam up their machines.

That makes the cups effectively non-recyclable at most facilities. Instead, the cups usually end up in landfills or the environment, where the plastic lining can break down into microplastics that may harm marine life or enter the human food chain.

 		Graphic: Max Pepper/CNN
Graphic: Max Pepper/CNN

Ben Packard, a former Starbucks vice president who used to oversee the company’s sustainability efforts, described the problem as system-wide.

“Starbucks can make the best compostable, recyclable cup and it’ll never be be composted or recycled if the rest of the system doesn’t change,” Packard, who is now the director of the University of Washington’s EarthLab, told CNN Business. “They cannot change the system by themselves.”

Still, the company has set high standards for itself. “We won’t consider our cups universally recyclable until our customers can recycle them in our stores, at their homes and workplaces, and in public spaces,” the company said in its 2010 global responsibility report.

For now, Starbucks can afford to move at its own pace because the public is not up in arms about the cup. But consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about disposable, single-use waste.

And sometimes, all it takes is one spark to light a fire.

 		Stand.Earth activists erected a "cup monst
Stand.Earth activists erected a "cup monster" to pressure Starbucks to address its waste. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

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Are Starbucks reusable coffee cups microwavable?

At its most basic,Starbucks’ Reusable $1 Cup is a cheap plastic cup resembling the chain’s disposable paper cup. … You can safely microwave liquids in the cup (but remember it will be hot and there’s not much in the way of insulation) and clean it in the dishwasher (but only on the top rack).

How many times do you need to use a reusable coffee cup?

A reusable cup would need to be used between 20 and 100 times in order to have lower emissions than a disposable cup, she writes in a piece for The Conversation. This is because more greenhouse emissions are released when making a durable product, and also because they need to be washed between uses.

Cost

Over the years, the cost to own a Starbucks reusable cup or tumbler has gone down significantly. While in the past, the cheapest branded options from the company cost as much as $20 or more, nowadays Starbucks reusable cups are significantly lower.

Several of the latest releases cost as little as $3, and Starbucks sells their reusable cups and tumblers in a variety of retail spaces, including through Amazon and in Starbucks locations in Target and Barnes and Noble stores, making it easy to get access to the variety of styles offered by the company.

If cost is your primary motivation when it comes to choosing a reusable cup, tumbler, or mug, choosing between Starbucks-branded products and those from other companies will likely depend on what type of reusable cup you want.

Starbucks’ $3 cold-drink tumblers are hard to beat in terms of price, but their hot-beverage reusable tumblers and mugs tend to cost quite a bit more, especially if you’re looking for ones that promise to be leak-proof or insulated travel mugs that will keep your hot drinks warm for a longer.

Overall, when it comes to the most reputed and well-rated travel mugs for hot beverages, Starbucks’ products often don’t make the list, especially since many of the company’s competitors in this arena focus almost exclusively on these types of products and have established name-brand recognition among its consumer base, making the often over $30 price tag well worth it in customers’ minds.

However, Starbucks has also recently developed cheaper hot-beverage products as long as you’re satisfied with a simpler product. For example, for their holiday releases in November 2019, Starbucks released a 6-pack set of reusable hot cups in a stylish red and pink ombre collection. The total price for the set was just under $12, which equals about $2 per cup, even cheaper than the latest cold-cup tumbler releases.

Conclusion

Whatever style, material, price, or size of reusable cup appeals to you, make sure that you’re choosing one that will fit your lifestyle, budget, and needs so that you don’t end up with a product that you forget to or can’t fully use.

Whether the ultimate product you choose comes from Starbucks’ own line or from one of the numerous options listed here, as long as your properly line up your habits and priorities with the right product, you’ll end up with a reusable cup that can cut down on your carbon footprint and make your coffee habit just a little more affordable in the long-run.

So, What Alternatives Do You Have?

Now that it very clear you cannot microwave Starbucks cups, what should you do if you need to reheat your cup of coffee?

How you reheat your coffee depends on where you are and the heating elements near you. For instance, if you are at home, you could place your coffee in a saucepan and warm it under a stove. This is the best-recommended method since you can control the temperatures of the coffee.

Alternatively, if you have a microwave you can pour the coffee in a cup that is not made paper or metal. Glass, ceramic or Styrofoam cups would do a good job.

How To Tell If A Cup Is Microwave Safe

The easiest way to tell if your cup or any other dish for that matter is microwave safe is by checking care instructions.

Depending on the item you are using, the instructions are usually found on the cup. For instance, for Starbuck cups, the instruction is found near the bottom.

If the cup can be placed in a microwave it will read, “Microwave friendly.” If not, the label may read, “Do not place in a microwave” or any other relevant information.

If the cup does not have a care instructions label, make efforts to contact the manufacturer through their website.

Other than the care label, there is an amateur way to determine if your cup is microwave safe. Place a cup of water in the microwave. Let the microwave heat up. If in the end, the cup remains cool and the water is heated up, the cup is microwave safe.

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