Thursday, January 3, 2008

Seattle's Best Coffee Turns Away Reusables

For the second time in two flights on AirTran from Sarasota, FL to National Airport, my trip took at least an hour longer than it was supposed to. With a longer-than-expected layover at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, I grabbed my reusable mug and set off in search of coffee.

Even The Green Miles knows he’s not going to find organic or fair trade coffee in an airport, so I stopped at Seattle’s Best Coffee, a subsidiary of Starbucks. I held my mug out to the cashier and asked her to fill it with regular.

“I can’t do that,” she said. “It’s store policy. I can only sell you coffee in one of our paper cups.”

Unfortunately, I’m no longer surprised by this answer. I’ve had trouble using my reusable mug at two different Dunkin Donuts locations. I checked with Starbucks, which owns Seattle's Best, and they said it's up to individual franchises to decide whether to accept reusable mugs or not.

Every year, Americans drink more than 100 billion cups of coffee. Of those, 14.4 billion are served in disposable paper cups— enough to wrap the earth 55 times if placed end-to-end. Those paper cups contain a plastic lining made from a petrochemical that would produce enough energy to heat 8,300 homes. The plastic makes them impossible to recycle or compost.

You’d think Starbucks would do better since they’re so often accused of greenwashing. While Starbucks coffee cups are made with 10% post-consumer recycled content, they all end up in the trash - 2.3 billion of them every year.

The Starbucks website hosts an extensive corporate social responsibility policy, but it’s long on study and short on commitments. The chain is working with the US Green Building Council to establish LEED standards for the retail sector … but doesn’t say it’s actually committing to making any its stores meet those standards. While Starbucks purchases the equivalent of 20% of its in-store energy use in renewable power, it’s been incredibly slow to embrace fair trade, organic, or shade-grown coffee (respectively, 6%, 4% and 1% of its total coffee purchases).

Even its recognition of global warming is wishy-washy. “Climate change is believed to be the greatest environmental threat of our generation.” (emphasis mine)

The actual Starbucks chain gives a 10 cent discount for reusable coffee mugs. While that discount was given 17 million times in 2006, that’s less than one percent of the 2.3 billion paper cups Starbucks served that year. And reusable mug use actually dropped from 2005 levels. I’ve said before that a 10 cent discount won’t change people’s behavior, and Starbucks is unfortunately proving me right. That long corporate social responsibility policy says nothing about trying to reverse the trend in falling reusable usage.
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