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Plastics, Recyclable Cups Among Shareholders’ Issues At Starbucks Annual Meeting

Mr. Jincks Flickr via Compfigh cc
Environmental groups complain that only a fraction of the 4 billion to-go cups sold by Starbucks annually are recylced. They want the coffee giant to do more.

The pressure is on Starbucks to create a disposable coffee cup that doesn’t end up in the trash. After a lengthy campaign that featured a huge puppet made of discarded cups and a petition with more than 800,000 signatures, the company announced a new $10 million initiative to develop a cup that is fully recyclable or compostable. 

That came a day before Starbucks' annual shareholder meeting in Seattle. But activists say the cups are part of a larger problem. They’re also pushing the coffee giant to use less plastic packaging in its stores.  

Former barista Shilo Brit spoke at the meeting as a shareholder representative and as a volunteer for Bellingham-based, which organized the petition drive. She said they’re grateful for the company's latest pledge. But addressing Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson directly, she pointed out that similar initiatives have been announced twice before.  

“I want to know, Mr. Johnson, will you keep your promise? Will you deliver on this recyclable cup that we are still waiting for? Because the world is watching,” she said. “What you do, the world will follow.”

CEO Johnson responded, reminding shareholders that the current cup is recyclable. But he said they are searching for a better solution.

Right now, Starbucks cups have a thin plastic lining that only a few cities have the right equipment to recycle, so they often end up in a landfill. The company is calling for more consistency in recycling policy nationwide.

Starbucks researchers are now testing a new cup liner made partially from plant-based material to make the cups compostable. The company says this is the 13th internal test of its kind in the last year alone.

They’re hoping the new initiative will help them crack the code. Innovators can apply for grants. The company says any discoveries will be open source, so the technology can be widely shared.

But activists also pointed out Starbucks’ latest sustainable cup plan doesn’t promote wider use of reusable cups or do anything to reduce single-use plastic straws, lids and cutlery that end up in the trash.

Corporate responsibility group As You Sow brought a shareholder resolution asking Starbucks to renew its commitments to reducing plastic pollution, much of which ends up in the ocean. Adrian Grenier, an actor and United Nations Environment Goodwill Ambassador, presented the resolution and critiqued the latest cup initiative.

“No mention of Starbucks' ubiquitous green straws, which are swept into waterways, ending up in the bellies of sea life and eventually back on land in our tap water that our children drink and the fish on our plates,” he said.

The Starbucks board recommended a no-vote on the resolution, and it failed.

As You Sow says this fight isn’t over. They note that the city of Seattle is banning single-use plastic straws and utensils starting July.  

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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