Starbucks’ cups are iconic — but the chain is trying to figure out how to get rid of most of them for the sake of the planet

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Starbucks‘ iconic white (and holiday) cups with the green mermaid logo are, in many ways, little mini-billboards for the company, but also put a big dent in its efforts toward sustainability — so the chain is prepping to start experimenting with ways to downplay the use of them.

The cups have even gone on to make cameos on news anchor desks as well as in fictional TV shows and films, including in the numerous coffee runs made by hard working but under appreciated assistants in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

However, their future at the chain could be reduced as the company tries to figure out how to shift away from the single use vessel approach to serving its drinks.

To that end, Starbucks is considering two main options.

First, Starbucks is researching “borrow a cup” programs. It’s started testing at about 20 different variations of cups in Japan, U.K. and Singapore.

The core of these programs involves cups that can be used more than once.

In one model, customers pay a $1 deposit when they buy a drink, but get that dollar, plus rewards stars, back when they return the cup to a machine in the store. This approach uses a third party to collect and clean cups so it doesn’t add any work to store employees. The cups can then ultimately be recycled once their lifespan is up or if a user opts not to bring it back for whatever reason.

Starbucks says one of these cups could replace up to 100 single use cups.

The program is appealing because it still fits in fairly well with most people’s coffee buying habits, with the only big change being that you have to remember to bring back your cup the next time you come to a store.

This program also has the advantage that Starbucks could presumably brand the cups it hands out with its logo and perhaps even the white and holiday designs throughout the year.

However, the more likely solution will be encouraging customers to bring their own cup.

Starbucks has long had a program that let customers bring their own cup to have their beverage prepared in, but the COVID-19 pandemic halted that. Customers are given a 10 cent discount for bringing their own cup.

Starbucks is looking at bringing the program back in full later in 2022. However, one challenge that was already growing prior to the pandemic is the increased use of drive thrus, which inherently make it more challenging for a customer to hand over a personal cup.

Sure, you can hand it to store employee at the window, but this often weighs down wait times for other drive thru customers because the drink can’t necessarily be prepared until you’re at the front of the line and hand over your cup.

For customers ordering a simple brewed coffee, it’s relatively easy to fill a cup on demand, but more complex drinks take longer to make and wouldn’t be able to tak advantage of the time it takes the customer to reach the window to prep the item.

Starbucks says it’s testing a variety of options to combat this issue, including the possibility of providing an additional window where customers drop off their cup. It could then be used to prepare the order in passed along to the pickup window when the customer makes it there.

Starbucks is also experimenting with having baristas make drinks in reusable containers and then pour them into customer cups at the pick up window as well as installing cup washing stations in stores.

Like most restaurants and coffee shops offering takeout or to go, Starbucks relies heavily on paper and plastic cups to serve its drinks in. Some stores, including Reserve level stores, may have stoneware cups and plates, but these are in the minority.

At one time, the white paper cups were used as a canvas of sorts for Starbucks baristas to jot down customer names and orders right on the side of the cups.

These days, most of that is handled by thermal printers that spit out little stickers with that information, although the cups still retain the blank boxes that were originally meant to allow staffers to make quick notations of how a drink should be prepared.

Starbucks’ paperboard cups aren’t technically fully recyclable due to thin coating on the inside that help keep the liquid in. Recycling these types of cups requires a facility that can separate the two materials, which isn’t common and often not economical.

Rival Dunkin’ Donuts has released what it calls a fully recyclable cup that uses two walls of paperboard in place of a coating. Both chains’ hot drink lids are recyclable where No. 5 plastics are accepted.

It’s all part of a broader move toward sustainability and to prevent thousands of tons of single use paper and plastic from ending up in landfills each year. While Starbucks’ plastic cups are recyclable, they don’t always make it into that stream and the process of recycling plastic still has a significant carbon imprint. A good deal of plastic presented for recycling also ends up in the landfill because there’s often more used plastic waiting to be recycled than can be stored and processed.

Starbucks has also been testing ways to reduce the use of straws, which are notoriously non recyclable and dangerous to wildlife, including a new cold cup lid that lets customers sip from the drink directly. Some stores are also testing using biodegradable straws (notably not in the chain’s iconic green color) made from plant based materials.

The chain has also been attempting to cut back on the use of cardboard sleeves and the green plastic mermaid stoppers designed to fit into hot drink cups by only providing them upon request (during the height of COVID and resulting supply chain issues, this was also sometimes done because stores had trouble stocking them).

Dunkin’, which previously used foam cups that were essentially non-recyclable, designed its new paper cup so that an extra sleeve wasn’t needed, saving millions of trees and carbon impact.