Starbucks rolling out $1 reusable plastic cups

Refill, anyone? Starbucks is now selling a $1 reusable plastic cup.
Refill, anyone? Starbucks is now selling a $1 reusable plastic cup.Starbucks / Today

Starbucks’ iconic white cup is a great marketing tool in customers’ hands, but not so great when it’s taking up space in a landfill.

The Seattle coffee giant is trying for the best of both worlds with the rollout of a $1 reusable plastic cup that resembles the paper one but can be brought back to the store for refills. Whether or not fans will be as devoted to the company’s environmental goals as they are to its coffee remains to be seen.

“I think it’s a good first step because it does raise awareness,” said Julie Urlaub, founder and managing partner of environmental consulting firm Taiga Company. “This is a campaign that’s in alignment with the company’s values and their sustainability plan.”

Changing consumer behavior can be a daunting task, though. Starbucks acknowledged that its 2008 goal to have 25 percent of its beverages served in reusable cups by 2015 had stalled, even with the incentive of a 10-cent discount; three years into the initiative, just under 2 percent of drinks were served in reusable mugs. The company modified its goal to a more modest 5 percent. It also began test-marketing what it calls a “high quality, low cost” reusable plastic cup that can hold tall or grande size drinks at 600 Pacific Northwest-area stores in October.

Starbucks now is introducing the cups to all of its U.S. and Canadian company-owned stores and some licensed coffee shops.

The company's challenge in modifying consumer behavior is twofold: People have to actually buy the reusable cups, then they have to remember to bring them back to the stores. “Ironically, if they sell a large number of travel mugs that end up not being used, they may worsen their environmental footprint in the long run,” said Catherine L. Kling, economics professor at Iowa State University, via email.

The low price of the cups is a factor Starbucks is playing up, pointing out that the cup pays for itself after only 10 drinks, but offering a dime off the price of a drink might not be enough of an incentive to kick the paper-cup habit, experts say.

Money certainly can motivate people to adopt environmentally friendly practices. Jinhua Zhao, a professor and director of the Environmental Science and Policy Program at Michigan State University, said the number of aluminum cans recycled can be up to 20 percentage points higher in states with bigger per-can refunds.  

“In this sense, the 10 cent discount Starbucks offers seems a bit low if the purpose is to get consumers who have purchased reusable cups to actually use them,” he said via email.

Kling points out, however, that offering a bigger discount would come at the expense of the company’s profit margin. “My guess is that they are targeting people who purchase regular type coffee — whose prices are lower so the discount will be a higher percent,” she said. “Starbucks is presumably motivated to do this largely for environmental concerns and the associated goodwill it can bring their company. But they have to consider profitability, as well.”

Zhao suggested that the company could sell the reusable cups in tandem with charging for disposable cups, imitating programs designed to cut down on the use of plastic shopping bags. But Starbucks customers — already paying a premium price for their caffeine fix — might resent a tacked-on cup fee.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Starbucks evolves the initiative as time goes on, Urlaub said, especially since it already has scaled down its original goal for cup reuse. “There are stumbling blocks, there are challenges that surface,” she said. “There is a lot of failure, but in that failure, there’s a lot of learning.” It’s more important that Starbucks promote the reusable cups as just one facet of a more holistic approach to eco-friendliness, she said, which the company is doing by also trying to increase how many of its paper cups are recycled. 

If it succeeds in getting people to remember to grab those cups on the way out the door for their morning commute, Zhao said the initiative could have a ripple effect. “Having an influential company such as Starbucks taking this action will help set examples for other companies to follow,” he said.

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