Forbes: Percolating a Sustainable Coffee Cup
It inspires fiercer loyalty and warmer associations than the Stanley Cup, the World Cup and America’s Cup. It’s the cup we cherish for our morning ritual: the lowly-but-ubiquitous disposable coffee cup.
Yet this same cup’s environmental footprint — Starbucks alone uses 4 billion annually — is inspiring a consumer backlash that’s grabbing boardroom attention for its potential hit to brand and customer loyalty. So earlier this month it also inspired — for the third time — a gathering of fierce competitors trying to build a more sustainable coffee cup.
The next-gen cup matters beyond your morning cup o’ joe. This sustainable business opportunity could set an example for how businesses jointly tackle even bigger global environmental challenges.
Message #1 from Cup Summit 3 at MIT, organized once again by Starbucks, was that everyone needs to be in the room — manufacturers, users, haulers, recyclers — to accelerate movement to scale. That echoes Ceres’ Roadmap for Sustainability, a how-to manual for businesses to win the sustainability game.
So Starbucks was joined by arch-rival Dunkin’ Donuts, Canadian java giant Tim Horton’s, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Chick-fil-A and Aramark. The Foodservice Packaging Association, half a dozen big paper producers, and four heavyweights of the solid waste industry also checked in.
With all of them in the room, joint challenges and opportunities emerged:
- Customers are hollering for more sustainable alternatives. “It’s a critical customer issue for us,’” says Starbucks VP of Global Responsibility Ben Packard, “and it’s also a critical brand issue. We can’t tell stories about protecting the tropical forests until we address the issue that’s right in front of us.’”
- But many customers – sometimes the same ones hollering – don’t like it when familiar cups change. “We call it ‘our dilemma,’” says Chick-fil-A Environmental Stewardship Director Michael Garrison. “Six out of 10 of our customers strongly prefer the qualities of our foam cup – but on the flip side we get regular comments that go to the integrity of our brand, on ‘hey, that cup is foam!’”
- Some said good solutions don’t yet exist at scale. Dunkin’ Brands Supply Chain Manager Joe Hellyar calls the lack of recycling infrastructure “a major hurdle” that – along with cost and unresolved questions on alternative materials – leaves his company “quite a way” from solutions.
Possible answers to Hellyar’s dilemma: Foodservice Packaging Institute President Lynn Dyer promised the Cup Summit that FPI will drive a new “Paper Recovery Alliance” to build bigger, more coordinated markets for used packaging. And a panelist from a group of four big regional and nationwide waste haulers promised that, “if you give us the (recycling) volume, we will innovate and work it out.”
The volume issue triggered another caution. Starbucks Environmental Impact Director Jim Hanna said that even if Starbucks could somehow recycle all its 4 billion annual cups at the one mill that produces every Starbucks napkin used in America, it would only provide enough feedstock to run the mill for four days. So multi-business recycling coalitions were discussed.
Another hurdle is that 4 of 5 disposable cups leave the store, which argues that building the greenest cup in the first place might yield stronger results than chasing down used cups – not that both shouldn’t be tried.
Other Summiteers voiced qualms about resolving tricky recycling challenges, like the fact that many coffee cups can contaminate a recycling stream because they’re still part-full.
But Juan Vila, who manages the Stora Enso Barcelona mill in Spain, questioned the questioners.
Vila told the Summit how his plant, part of a European-wide package making group, had taken on one of the toughest package recycling challenges, the plastic-coated paperboard/aluminum containers known as Tetra Paks and Tetra Briks (think juice boxes), and successfully recycled them into new containers while boosting Stora Enso’s business with Tetra Pak, its biggest customer.
If you can profitably recycle Tetra Paks, said Vila, used coffee cups with plastic coatings and a little melted sugar stuck inside are no big deal. The technology exists.
But neither is it a cakewalk, Vila said — though that’s more because of balky business cultures than technical barriers.
“In the first months we used that material, all the problems in the paper mill were blamed on the Tetra Paks, and some managers wanted to let it go,” said Vila.
“Except that through patience and the stubbornness of some of our managers we didn’t give up. And now we think this material is the best thing that ever happened. The pulp we get from the (recycled) Tetra is equal (in strength) to the virgin materials we get from our Swedish mills.”
So Vila stands as a reality check: We’re doing it now and doing it profitably.
Getting all the players in the same room matters — kudos to Starbucks for its leadership. But Cup Summit 3’s bigger message is that this can be done — and with a brand and reputational upside for business that hopefully will get all these fierce competitors working together more quickly.