A Cup for Joe

Starbucks can save the world, if it has the balls.

I was reintroduced to Chris Jordan though his TED talk, Picturing Excess, in which he uses images to demonstrate to the enormity of American’s subconscious behaviors in aggregate. The results are staggering and the implications are catastrophic. Worse yet, Americans are apathetic to their own, marginal impact. So, what’s the fix?

Start with paper cups.

Americans use 16 billion (with a ‘B’) paper cups every year. You’ve likely used one or two today to transport your Caramel Macchiato and thought nothing about the aggregate impact. Neither does anyone else, nor do most people care– therein lies the problem:

  1. Bringing your own cup is inconvenient, albeit cost effective.
  2. One paper cup has virtually no impact. 

Solution: Starbucks should stop serving beverages in disposable cups, driving change through ubiquity.

Starbucks should take a cue from the milkmen of yore and dispense beverages with a meaningful (say, $10) container deposit. Any container can be returned to any Starbucks, and Starbucks will sterilize any returned container for reuse. And it’s not that inconvenient: Starbucks is everywhere. (And, if they’re fully committed to their containers, they can include RFID to track customer coffee drinking habits and share that information with them… but I digress.)

Immediate Effects

  1. Overnight 15% reduction in paper cup usage.
    [Starbucks printed 2.3 Billion (again, with a ‘B’) paper cups in 2006.]
  2. Increased awareness that local efforts have global impact. 

Secondary Effects

  1. Increased acknowledgement that local efforts have global impact. 
  2. Increased local action.
  3. More companies will follow their lead.
  4. The homeless (and other financially challenged individuals) will ensure these containers are returned or recycled.

For many Americans, coffee is the alpha and omega. In ridding Starbucks of disposable containers, it’s a constant reminder that our local actions do affect global change. 

Unfortunately, I suspect SBUX stockholders might sue. Admittedly, this is a risky plan; though, I would hope that corporations with the power to affect change would, instead of merely “protecting shareholder value”.

Maybe Dunkin’ Donuts, a privately-owned company, will have the chutzpah.

I hope someone does.

More: B-Corporations, Sustainability is Sexy.


Dunkin :-)

Michael Gruen
Michael Gruen

Kroosh: I'm not concerned terribly about the implementation, though I imagine they'll be able to find cool ways to do it. Also, the water usage to paper cups used pales in comparison in both cost and greenness.

Alan: RFID safety is an engineering problem and not my problem. Steam-cleaning your own cup for you is what I'd imagine most Starbucks customers would elect to do most of the time. Thanks for your comment!

Robin: Firstly, of course it's hard to implement, but that's not the point. If you want a cup of coffee, and you don't have a cup, you put a deposit on a new one. And then, when you're done, you return it and get your deposit back.

Secondly, in that people don't like carrying things with them, the point is to force Americans to change their behavior and priorities. If it's a movement lead by Starbucks or other caffeine purveyor, it adds a lot of social importance.

Thirdy, wasting cups is waste. Yes, it really is that bad. Trees do not grow on trees. Do your homework, Robin.


I don't think this would have a large impact and it would be pretty hard to implement. If you want a cup of coffee to go it might be hard for you to bring a cup with you, and it might be hard to take it whereever you are going. People don't like carrying shit around with them. People would complain a lot about having to pay 10.00 for a cup.

And I don't think that "wasting" 16 billion paper cups is really that bad, presumably they are recyclable and biodegradable. It's pretty easy to grow trees (and you can get a lot of cups from one tree) to compensate for the "wasted" cups. Easier, at least then get 16 billion customers (ok, so most of them are repeat customers) to buy cups or bring their own every time.

alan jones
alan jones

Excellent idea. Sadly, I suspect RFIDs wouldn't survive many sterilization cycles but they wouldn't be hard to track via barcode. People who use their own cups have to deal with the inconvenience of washing the cup afterwards and I think that's one of the major reasons why more people don't bring their own cup. Perhaps Starbucks could quickly steam-clean your cup for you when you bring it in?

But yeah, 16B cups a year is horrifying. Who knows how many bits of trash McDonalds puts out there annually... ick...


well, they could start with just serving in non-disposable for people who don't need coffee "to go" (they do for a few specialty drinks) but what does that do to water consumption for cleaning?