Starbuck’s Paper Tiger

So, our last post featured a photo (taken by your intrepid bloggers, by the way) of lions.

Now we feature a tiger. A paper tiger.

(Those of you who are Wizard of Oz fans will probably expect bears  on the next post – oh my – we’ll work on that!)

What tiger, you ask?  Well , our blog title is adapted from  the story title for a front-page story in today’s Boston Globe.  The title is “Starbucks tackles the paper (cup) tiger”.  And it’s a very informative story about the challenges faced by even well-intentioned companies when they try to get the steady-state use of their product to have a lower environmental impact.

Let’s start with some facts.  Starbucks sells an average of 8.2 million paper cups of coffee a day.  They are all recyclable. However,  most of these cups still end up in landfills.  Now, given that they are paper, it’s still a better outcome than a non-biodegradable K-Cup in a landfill, or even the expanded polystyrene used by Dunkin’ Donuts.  Still, it’s disappointing to hear that most of these recyclable paper cups end up in landfills.  In fact, about 25% of the items you put in your recycling bin from your home, never end up getting recycled.  It has to do with the items being considered unusable by the time they get to the recycling facility, perhaps because they have been contaminated with food or glass.

In fact it was startling to learn that less than one percent of coffee cups are recycled.  They don’t even show up in the noise when we look at the recycling rates of selected products from the most recent (Source: US EPA) information:

We suggest that you read the article which provides lots of details as to (1) why recyclables don’t always get recycled and (2) how people like Peter Senge are contributing.  We want to focus on what Starbucks is doing to make the cups more recyclable, because that involves projects.

For example, Starbucks has been installing special bins designed to segregate coffee cups from other waste.  What would you call the roll-out of hundreds of special bins in a variety of global locations.  Er, that’s a project.   And it’s only one of thousands related to recycling efforts at Starbucks.  It also has been coordinating with partner companies that agree to recycle its cups (already made from 10% post-consumer recycled fibers since 2006), and reuse the paper fiber.  In some cases, the fiber comes right back to the store in the form of Starbucks napkins.

So you can see a project element there.

We also know, as project managers, that it pays to exchange lessons learned and best practices.   Well, MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, located in Cambridge, Ma) sponsors a “Cup Summit”  – a sort of collaboration which puts competitors and suppliers such as Dunkin’ Donuts, Tim Hortons, International Paper, and George Pacific, in the same room to figure out how to improve the recycle-ability and develop the market for used coffee cups.


Take a look at this video:

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So this cross-company collaboration is not only a good project management practice, it will likely yield more projects for us – project managers.  And you can see that paper cups aren’t the only material that could use a boost in recycle-ability.  Lots of potential projects hiding there in landfills, don’t you think?  What else may be hiding there?  Lions, or tigers, or bears, oh my!?!




  1. Unfortunately, most of the people (who aren’t screenwriter wannabees or students) go to Starbuck’s, get their coffee, and then head somewhere else. As a result, imho, these in-store recycle systems aren’t of much use other than to make good press.

  2. Good point, Steve. Still, every little bit helps, and this raises awareness of the situation. Maybe The vendors could invest in a program to also put the bins in areas adjacent to the stores…