Pure Genius

Starbucks to cities: Improve your recycling

Posting in Cities

Starbucks uses 3 billion hot drink cups a year. If cities establish better commercial recycling programs and recycling companies find value in the paper, Starbucks will reach its goal of fully recyclable cups by 2012. They might even be turned into Starbucks napkins.

I stopped by my neighborhood Starbucks yesterday, a couple blocks from the U.S. Capitol. It was recently renovated, and I found plaques throughout the store explaining aspects of its green design (outside the restrooms, for example, a plaque explains that hand dryers reduce paper towel waste). I found dual-flush toilets (instructing users on flushing options) and “for here” mugs.

I also learned that the flooring was made from reclaimed wood, from Charlottesville, Va.; 95 percent of the construction waste was sent somewhere other than a landfill; and the bulbs are now LEDs and CFLs. It’s one of 21 retail locations around the world—including stores in San Francisco, Seattle, Madrid and Kyoto—that have either achieved or are currently registered for LEED certification. Starbucks’ global support center in Seattle and its roasting plant in Sandy Run, S.C., have also earned LEED certification.

Last week I talked to Starbucks Director of Environmental Impact Jim Hanna about the company’s store renovations, energy and water savings and how paper cups may one day be turned into Starbucks napkins.

What are some of the challenges you run into in greening your stores?

The great thing about Starbucks is that sustainability is embedded in our DNA. Everyone was so excited about doing this, it really became a rallying cry for our entire operation.

One challenge was LEED. When you look at LEED, it was designed for big office buildings, so the system itself was really cumbersome and time consuming and expensive. So we actually worked directly with USGBC and said we’re interested in using the Gold standard, but your existing system doesn't work for us. So they said, “Go fix it.” That’s the great thing about USGBC—it’s a membership-based organization and that’s how they handle challenges, by putting it back to the members. So Starbucks—over three years ago—created the LEED retail standard from the ground up. This is a solution for all retailers, not just Starbucks.

Before that there was no LEED protocol for retailers?

No, it was just for office buildings. USGBC has started to realize to remain relevant, they need to come up with different standards for that—for retail, for schools, even for neighborhoods. And these standards maintain the robustness of the original standard.

You’re making physical changes to existing stores, but what are the employees doing to change their behaviors?

The process of preparing beverages, cleaning utensils, cleaning things behind the bar and washing dishes--the day-to-day activities—all those consume water and energy. So not only do we need to incorporate efficient technologies, but we need to look at the activities and how to be most efficient.

What are some of these technologies?

One of the technologies was changing out the dipper wells. Behind the counter, where the barista hands you drink, there’s a place where we wash utensils. To meet health code standards, we had to have a continuous flow of water, and that used a lot of water during the daily operations of our stores. So to reduce water consumption that allowed us to meet health code standards we found an off-the-shelf solution. We’re saving 150 gallons per store per day now.

Is it motion-sensitive?

It’s an on-demand solution. The barista hits a button that activates a jet of water for a specific amount of time, and the local health department said this is perfect. The dipper well is pretty old technology. I think it originated at ice cream shops because they needed to clean spoons from ice cream. It’s a good technology for cleanliness, but there’s a lot of water wasted.

What else are employees doing differently?

We’ve installed some nozzle heads that use a more high-powered jet of water to rinse our blended pitchers, and we can significantly reduce water there. In the back of the house, we’re looking at dishwashing methodology to save water.

There are a lot of links in the recycling chain. What part of it has been the biggest obstacle: Customers? Cities?

The biggest problem is lack of infrastructure to recycle the materials from our store. In most cities, residential recycling is controlled by the government, so they can mandate to recyclers what they will and won’t take. So where we see a really robust residential recycling program, the commercial recycling programs are less so.

When our customer is finished consuming the beverage—about 80 percent are leaving the store with their beverage--in most cities, the infrastructure does not exist. We’ve set this goal of 100 percent by 2015, but we know to accomplish this we need to work with cities to create this infrastructure, from the ground up sometimes. What drives success is the retail sector and Starbucks and local official and end users working together to really create demand.

The exciting part is that we know the cups themselves are not the problem. We thought there was some magic material that would be automatically recyclable, but we realized our cups are fine.

What’s been lacking in the past is demand from the recycling market for our product. When you’ve seen a demand for a specific material—like the aluminum can or cardboard—the recycling infrastructure works itself out. So we’re running some tests at paper mills to get the mills to say this is a valuable commodity that we have a use for, and then they will buy this from the recycling companies. It’s a tough endeavor, but we’re excited about it. We’re running a test with cups from New York at a paper mill. We’re also working with a Georgia-Pacific mill in Wisconsin, which makes our napkins, to see if we can turn our cups into napkins. It’s a good way of closing the loop on Starbucks products.

What about back-of-the-store recycling?

In our customer’s eyes, our cups are the No. 1 liability. But about 70 percent is back of house—the waste the customers never see: coffee grounds, cardboard boxes from shipping, milk jugs. We’ve been very successful at recycling that waste because there’s high demand for milk jugs and cardboard and coffee grounds, but the cups are what the customers see.

How are the coffee grounds recycled?

It’s a different option in every market. We stared the Grounds for Your Garden program in 1995. We receive our coffee beans in five-pound bags we call silver bullet bags. We refill them with used grounds and give them to our customers, and they are a great for soil. That’s exciting because then we can give right back to our customers.

What locations are the trickiest for meeting your green goals?

Where we don’t control the solid waste in our stores. With a significant percentage of our stores, we’re a tenant in someone else’s buildings. We pay occupancy fees to our landlords, which includes rent and utilities and solid waste. So in that case it’s up to the landlord to set up recycling, so we’re at the mercy of them as to whether they can set up those services.

How many cups does Starbucks go through, and how many cups do the mills need for your pilot program?

Three billion hot drink cups and 1 billion cold plastic cups a year. That sounds like a huge number, but that’s out of 500 billion total single-serve cups sold per year. So we’re relatively small.

With the mills, we’re on a test basis. We’re collecting in New York, and once we have enough, we’ll send them to the mill all at once. The ironic thing is that the paper mills go through a lot of material in one day. But if Starbucks can lead the entire retail sector so we can get others on board, then we can generate the volume. We don’t create enough volume on our own.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure