Starbucks Reinstates Its Reusable Cup Program With a Low-Tech Twist

Starbucks will reinstate its reusable cup program in the U.S. on June 22, more than a year after suspending the program because of COVID-19-related safety concerns. 

The Seattle coffee giant halted its longtime reusable cup program in March of 2020. Since then, the chain has only served up beverages in its own to-go cups. However, as Starbucks pointed out in a letter this week, the company has a goal to reduce single-use cup waste by 50 percent by 2030 as part of a larger, multi-decade goal of becoming a resource positive company. 

The newly reinstated cup program will still offer customers that bring their own cups to Starbucks stores a $.10 discount. The company has also introduced a low-tech but seemingly effective way to get these reusables from the customers hands to the barista’s and back again: keep the cup in a ceramic mug while the barista makes the drink.

For now, the reusable program is only available to in-store customers, though Starbucks said it is “testing safe options” for reusable cups in the drive-thru lane. “For here ware” — ceramic mugs and plates — will once again be available for in-store customers, too.

Elsewhere, Starbucks is in the midst of a pilot test for its “Borrow a Cup” program, where customers can get their beverages in a reusable cup for a $1 deposit. For the program, Starbucks has partnered with Ridwell, a company that collects hard-to-recycle items, to offer a home-pickup service.

Worldwide, we throw out roughly 264 billion paper cups per year. Most of these are difficult to recycle because of their plastic inner linings. When it launched the Borrow a Cup program, Starbucks itself noted that a major hurdle to curbing this problem is convenience. “The challenge is how to make choosing reusables as convenient as you expect from Starbucks – no extra steps – especially with 80% of Starbucks beverages being enjoyed on the go,” the company said.

Other restaurant chains, including McDonald’s, Burger King and Just Salad, will grapple with a similar challenge as they further develop their own reusables programs. In all likelihood, the most effective strategy to cutting down cup waste (and packaging waste in general) will be a combination of bring-your-own-cup programs, partnerships with circular-packaging services, and regulatory requirements.

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