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Starbucks tackles paper (cup) tiger

Starbucks’ bins separate the cups from other waste. Starbucks’ bins separate the cups from other waste. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Taryn Luna
Globe Correspondent / September 17, 2011

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Starbucks sells on average 8.2 million paper cups of coffee a day, all of which can be recycled, but most still end up in landfills.

The world’s biggest coffee chain wants to change that by convincing everyone from recycling companies to paper mills that it’s worth the effort to recycle paper cups. But the strategy has proved a hard sell, calling attention to a widespread problem in the recycling movement: Just because something is recyclable doesn’t mean it gets recycled.

About 25 percent of items thrown into home recycling bins are never recycled, said Susan Collins, executive director of the nonprofit group Container Recycling Institute. Oftentimes items are deemed unusable by the time they reach recycling centers because they are contaminated with food or laced with broken glass from containers that shattered in the same bin.

Currently, recycling companies want to focus on other materials, like cardboard and aluminum, for which there is an attractive resale market. That’s not the case with paper cups, forcing Starbucks to try to collect as many of its own cups as it can, strike deals with companies to recycle them, and then agree in some cases to buy back the material.

“You can collect all of this stuff,’’ said Christine Beling of the Environmental Protection Agency, who agrees with Starbucks’ approach. “But unless you have someone to buy it from you, who cares?’’

With paper cups for coffee, there is another major issue: Many recycling companies don’t have the equipment to separate the cup’s paper from its inner lining which prevents hot liquids from leaking.

To improve collections, Starbucks has been installing special bins designed to segregate coffee cups from other waste; the chain recently introduced them in all 30 of the company’s stores in the Boston area. The chain is then lining up companies that have agreed to recycle its cups, which have been made of 10 percent post-consumer recycled fiber since 2006. In Massachusetts, Starbucks is working with RockTenn, with plants scattered across the United States, to collect the cups, recycle them, and sell the material to paper mills.

In some markets, such as New York and Chicago, the company is working with paper mills and recycling centers to turn some of the recycled paper cups into napkins used by Starbucks.

“The focus is often, ‘What can I do to the cup to make it more recyclable?’ ’’ said Jim Hanna, Starbucks’ director of environmental impact. “What’s more important is, ‘What can I do to the infrastructure to make these cups more recyclable?’ ’’

The fact that Starbucks’ cups are made of recyclable paper is already a step in the right direction. Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s serve hot coffee in expanded polystyrene, or foam, cups. Expanded polystyrene is very lightweight, but takes up a lot of room to transfer and must be recycled in high volumes to be profitable, making it one of the most expensive materials to recycle. Dunkin’ is testing a foam cup recycling program at a few stores in Massachusetts. McDonald’s would only say that it recycles in areas where it is regulated.

Recycling centers that are working with Starbucks, such as Action Carting Environmental Services in New York, say the process isn’t without hiccups. If a bag of cups is contaminated with more than 15 percent of liquid or other materials that aren’t paper, it becomes more difficult to work with at the mill.

Paper products company Georgia Pacific, which is taking the cups from recycling centers and creating Starbucks napkins in a mill in Green Bay, Wis., says more coffee cups need to be recycled in order for the process to be profitable. Starbucks paper cups represent less than 1 percent of the 500 billion paper cups produced a year.

If Georgia Pacific recycled all of the paper cups Starbucks customers use in a year - about 3 billion - it would create only the equivalent of less than a week’s worth of paper from a mill, said John Mulcahy, vice president of strategy and category effectiveness at Georgia Pacific of Atlanta.

Mulcahy said now is the perfect time to increase the scale of paper cup recycling because more people are conserving paper, such as opting for online billing, which will lead to a decline in the amount of recycled paper in the market.

“The supply of paper that is available for recycling is going down and the demand for recycling paper is going up, which means the value of recycled paper is going up,’’ Mulcahy said.

The need to recycle a higher volume of cups was a key topic of discussion last week at the third “Cup Summit’’ at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The event puts competitors, like Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons, or International Paper and Georgia Pacific, in the same room to share ideas about how to develop a market for used coffee cups.

Carol Patterson, environmental affairs manager of Canadian coffee chain Tim Hortons, said that like Starbucks, the company serves its hot coffee drinks in paper cups with a polyethylene liner, which most paper mills are not equipped to recycle. She said that the company is recycling coffee cups in some stores in Canada and the United States.

Peter Senge, the chair of the Society for Organizational Learning, a group that brings institutions like those at the Cup Summit to work together on issues, said Starbucks and its competitors have come a long way in the last three years.

“The conversation has really shifted from, ‘Can it be done?’ to ‘How much needs to be done until we can get to the point where it can be self reinforcing?’ ’’ said Senge, who is also a senior lecturer at MIT in leadership and sustainability.

The answer he heard at the summit was the need for at least 10 percent of the paper cups produced in the world to be recycled for the system to become worthwhile for everyone involved. But for all this to work, customers will have to play a critical role.

Sipping a soy latte in a Starbucks paper cup, Edith Walker, 63, a Commonwealth School teacher, said she was surprised to learn that her cup will probably get thrown in a landfill. The Back Bay resident said she usually orders her joe to go and then puts the used cup in a compost bin at the school.

Walker said she lauds Starbucks’ attempts to revamp the industry.

“If they can get other people involved and make a go of it,’’ she said, “it’s a great thing.’’

Taryn Luna can be reached at tluna@globe.com.