Starbucks supplier Mississippi River has been granted FDA approval to use recycled content in food and beverage packaging. Starbucks expects to convert its hot beverage cups to 10 per cent recycled material, in a move that sees the coffee giant further integrate environmental practices into its business.
"Beginning to use post-consumer recycled content hot beverage cups is an important milestone for Starbucks in addressing the environmental impact associated with our paper-buying practices," said Jim Donald, Starbucks chief executive designate.
"Starbucks goal is to convert hot cups in our US company-operated retail stores by the end of calendar 2005. We will continue to explore ways to include recycled content in all Starbucks-branded paper goods in our stores."
Starbucks, which uses an estimated 1.5 billion cups annually, currently puts recycled paper into its cardboard cup sleeves, napkins and cardboard carriers, but this is the first attempt to introduce recycled beverage packaging.
Environmentalists have welcomed the move, but some have been critical about the amount of recycled material that Starbucks has promised to use. Dr Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defence Council, told the New York Times that although it was a helpful start, 10 per cent recycled content is still minuscule.
Starbucks said it was using only 10 per cent recycled material partly because the material costs more, and indeed, the higher cost is one reason that other food companies have not switched to recycled cups.
US government subsidies for logging and the process of turning waste into usable paper products make recycled paper more expensive than virgin paper. Adding to the cost is the need for coffee cups to be stronger to withstand the hot liquids.
But despite the modest percentage, Starbucks claims the move will have considerable environmental effect. The company believes that it will save approximately five million pounds of virgin tree fibre a year.
"We hope to have other future 'firsts' as we continue to look for innovative ways to improve our environmental performance," said Ben Packard, Starbucks director of environmental affairs.
"As Starbucks continues to grow and expand its presence around the globe, we are actively working to incorporate environmental considerations in our business operations."
The Seattle-based company has clearly become aware that consumers are far more environmentally conscious than it first thought. The firm recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and Washington-based Conservation International yesterday in Mexico City to provide economic incentives for high-quality coffee growers that minimise their environmental impact.
The move illustrates not only the growing power of the premium coffee market, but also how much consumer demand can influence even the biggest of corporations.
The introduction of recycled paper cups therefore fits into Starbucks' overarching strategy of becoming a corporation with a global conscience. The company says that while the new packaging will look and perform the same, it will lower the company's annual dependence on tree fibre by more than five million pounds.
The firm plans to test the cups early in 2005 and to have them in all its stores by the end of the year.