Starbucks sells 4 billion cups of liquid — both hot and cold — each year. From Nitro Cold Brews to Pumpkin Spice Lattes, the global coffee chain keeps consumers caffeinated with disposable cups. Whether you order a tall, grande or venti, your empty cup ends up joining a whole lot of non-recyclable waste.
But this year, Starbucks — among other food giants like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Wendy’s — wants to make its drinking vessels better for the environment. Starbucks joined the NextGen Consortium, an investment platform for sustainable consumer goods, to think up a new design for that wasteful cup.
They launched the NextGen Cup Challenge last fall. The contest — with a grand prize of $1 million — attracted over 500 entries from over 50 countries. After 4 months of "rigorous" review, the collaboration has narrowed it down to 12 final designs.
Each entry aimed to "push the boundaries of sustainable design and find innovative cup solutions," according to a Starbucks press release. For better or for worse, the winning cup will soon change the look of your Starbucks drink for good.
All 12 finalists break down into three solutions: One group created cup liners; a second camp worked with new materials; and the third group created reusable cup receptacles.
Footprint US is one of the companies that remade the plastic liner that insulates hot drinks. The existing lining in Starbucks' cups keeps the liquid from seeping through the paper shell but the material makes it difficult to recycle. Footprint created cups, lids and straws with a fiber-based solution and an aqueous-coating. In short, it’s totally recyclable and 100-percent compostable.
Kotkamills Oy took the same conscious cup liner approach. The Finland-based company formed a plastic-free, recyclable and compostable cup lining. The material can be processed into preexisting, cup-making machines. With this option, the Starbucks cup can stay the same Starbucks cup on the outside — it’ll just act a little differently on the inside.
WestRock Corporation, another American company, created a similarly recyclable and compostable paper-based cup liner. And it looks exactly like the Starbucks drink you picked up this week.
In the new materials category, Solublue Ltd. stood alone. The U.K. developer invented a plant-based, non-toxic cup that biodegrades after use. The material was designed to replace single-use plastics like cups, straws and pesky food packaging.
A group of reusable service models, like CupClub’s innovative system, rounded out the 12 finalists. CupClub created "a returnable cup ecosystem, providing a service for drinks." It’s like bike sharing, car sharing or bowling-shoe sharing — but, you know, for cups.
Customers just buy a drink from a participating store, but instead of throwing the cup into the trash, it gets deposited it in one of CupClub’s bins. Then the cup will get reused (after a wash, of course).
Revolv, a company based in Indonesia and Hong Kong, operates with a collection receptacle, too. You enjoy your drink in a Revolv cup and return it to a cleaning station when you’re done. The system plans to integrate with a web app in order to help drinkers locate their nearest caffeine fix and deposit spot.
ReCup GmbH, out of Germany, formed another multi-use cup. You "rent" a reCup at any participating store by buying a drink and putting down a small deposit. When you return the cup, at the same store or another participating store, you get that deposit back.
The NextGen Cup Contest brought thinkers together from all ends of the world (other finalists came from France, Thailand and Belgium) and inspired its participants to keep innovating for the environment's sake.
But even with these promising contest results, NextGen told TODAY Food that it’ll still take a few years before any of these recyclable solutions roll out nationwide.
From here, up to six winners will enter the "NextGen Business Accelerator," where they’ll work with a network of business experts to upscale their model. The winning cup, after all, will have to hold the most important drink in the world — your morning coffee — and serve billions of people.