Starbucks Eco-frustration


Full Disclosure: About once a week I go to Starbucks. I hide my head in shame (hey, I protested Starbucks putting locals out of business in the 90’s) and stand on line for a soy latte. I work and attend grad school in Manhattan, and Starbucks are everywhere AND they always have Silk (sometimes organic but at least GMO-free) soymilk, a necessity for me since I haven’t drunk cow’s milk in god knows how long. And if you’ve been a student, (not to mention a way more than full-time blogger/freelancer/editor), you can relate to my need for caffeine! If given the option, I’ll go to a local coffee place- even go out of my way for one, but sometimes they can be hard to find.

So, my following rant has some substance to it, as a semi-regular customer of the ubiquitous chain (and yes, yes, I’m a bit of a hypocrite. I admit it, so sue me! I swear I never went there until I became a workoholic). But I write this as a real, regular customer, which I think gives it some weight. Here’s my suggestion, since Starbucks has been losing customers recently: Bring back the Mug!

On this entire continent called Europe, you go into any espresso bar or cappucino cafe and if you choose to stay, you get a real mug, teacup or espresso shot receptacle from which to quaff your java fix. And every Starbucks I’ve ever been to has the tables, and seems to encourage people to sit down, but why do those people all have takeaway cups? Paper cup and hot cup protector thingy (recycled, good), plastic top, all of which could be completely done away with if denizens drank from real mugs that could be washed and reused a thousand times. Of course, if you’re getting your coffee to go, you need to use a disposable (unless you have a refillable coffee mug to use of course- but Starbucks has trouble even dealing with these.)

If you’re going to sit down at a coffeehop, you shouldn’t be using a disposable cup. It’s wasteful, and frankly, uncivilized. Drinking out of a proper cup is a more relaxing experience, and reminds us that disposable items should not be an expectation, they should be a convenience, an exception. We should be using disposable ONLY when we really need them, period.

Just imagine where that cup started.

A tree, and bucket of crude extracted from the ground. Some of the oil goes to make the plastic tops on the cups. A tree was grown, felled and processed into the cup (along with some post-consumer recycled paper). Try picturing all the energy it takes to chop down the trees and collect and recycle the paper, then the machines that manufacture the paper cups, and the gas used to transport them to a zillion Starbucks, all for 20 minutes of use before they are tossed in the garbage and then add to our landfills, or end up in the environment. Think of all the plastic coffee tops and where they end up (plastic doesn’t really biodegrade, or won’t for thousands and thousands of years).

According to this article, tons (literally) of plastic blows out into the ocean into “the eye of the North Pacific subtropical gyre, where opposing ocean currents form a vortex bigger than Australia, trapping tons of floating debris in its circular flow”.

Trash that wound up there used to decompose. Now, with 403 billion pounds of plastic produced annually, according to the Houston-based consulting group Chemical Markets Associates Inc., areas of the gyre have turned into a soup of indigestible shards that can break down to the size of plankton and be mistaken for food, endangering millions of fish and birds.

“No matter where we go, we find plastic,” said Moore, 60. “The ocean is now this plastic soup, and we just don’t know what that’s doing.”

Marine debris worldwide kills more than 1 million sea birds and 100,000 mammals each year, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

After you’ve commented on the cup issue here, you can also add in something about those stupid sizing system. My friend Michael, who alerted me to this campaign (thanks!) and wrote several vociferous comments about the insistence on throw-away only, also had this to say:

And ask them to spare us from that venti, grande bullshit. It’s polluting our language. What’s wrong with small, medium and my favorite – grande pompino? (ask your Italian friends for a translation).

Oh, and if I’m going to be paying through the nose for a shot of damn espresso, why the hell isn’t it organic and fair-trade? What are we paying for anyway? Too many freebie cups may be the answer.

About Starre Vartan
Starre Vartan is editor-in-chief of and the author of the Eco-Chick Guide to Life.


  1. Starre,
    Thanks for writing about this. I’ve been irked about the dearth of ceramic cups in US coffee shops for a few years, and since a trip to Prague last summer, I’ve been on a local (DC) quest. The only places I can find that serve coffee, sans table-service, in real, no-foolin’ cups are diners and the occasional tapas bar. But, they are loathe to surrender counter space for coffee during any mealtime.
    I’ve seen Starbucks baristas flummoxed by the reusable cup too, but I think the comments linked to your post may put too fine a point on it. I use my reusable cup here and there, and I don’t generally have a problem.
    Standardizing the sizes is a great idea, as is reducing the price. However, Starbucks is a business, and in many respects a fairly well-run one. Like most successful businesses, it makes core decisions based upon the market. If consumers want better service with reusable cups, we have to use them. If we simply get frustrated and go with the disposable cup, we’ve again conditioned the business that it’s doing the right thing by putting little attention into the environmentally-friendly option.
    While we’re on the subject, try bringing your own cloth napkin, too. Being the only weirdo who does this is losing its novelty.

  2. That’s funny! I usually carry a cloth napkin around with me (I’m always on the go and usually have fruit and snacks in my bag so I need it!) I think it’s nice to use my own napkin that I wash myself, and cloth is better for actually cleaning hands/face than paper is- it’s more aborbent and doesn’t leave bits of paper all over your clothes and skin.

  3. I go to a local coffee shop called Emy j’s because they use real glassware.
    Can you provide a link to Starbucks, so we can encourage them to at least provide this as an option when customers place their order?

  4. I agree. I think it would be great if Starbucks had actual mugs. However, reality sets in and I realize one important thing – Starbucks doesn’t want you to stick around. More people in and out means more seats available and more customers. A disposable cup psychologically tells you to get moving. A mug is comfort and relaxation. A disposable cup is temporary and forgettable. In five words …. ‘make way for the next customer.’ Vote with your dollars and go to a traditional coffee shop that uses mugs. You’d be surprised, they might actually have/stock Silk if enough people ask.

  5. Josh McGuirk says:

    It takes a lot of gall to complain about your coffee-drinking experience when there are children barely subsisting on flavorless, poorly-refined grains in countries all over.

    You’re so concerned about the earth. Why do you care more about the rock than the people who are living on it? So that future generations can enjoy better coffee than you had?

  6. laura, the purple texts are links. i linked twice to the page where you can go tell starbucks what you think in the above text, but here it is again….give ’em hell!

  7. Totally agree on the mug vs. disposable cup. Gimme a mug any day. Still, whenever I go into Starbucks, I always ask for a mug and they give me one. Plus, awesome that they have organic soy milk. They’re also the biggest Fair Trade importer in the US.

    Tulleys (spelling?) has them beat on the disposable cup, tough. Tulley’s has easily biodegradable disposable cups whereas Stabrucks still uses plastics.

    Still, I’ve gained an appreciation for the green siren over this last year.

  8. As you say in Europe you can, I live in the UK and poses… a Starbucks card! I’m that kind of regular, and I always get a proper mug if i’m drinking in. Also, One thing to try, I know they do it here, Take in your own mug! They offer a small discount here if you do, I’ve taken my nice thermos mug in there and got it topped up with a latte, couldn’t be better!

  9. While I am a Seattlite, I too, sometimes abhore Starbucks. There are three in my neighborhood alone. And that is the reason they are breaking the backs of the local coffee drive through buisnesses around here. Sheer numbers!

    BUT, if you say “for here” at my Starbucks, you get a mug. A real one. And they even spruce up the top of your whipping cream or what-not with a little heart. Also, if you bring a personal cup, they will deal with it, happily, and give you a $.15 discount on your drink… even in the drive through.

    Many times, it is the asking that makes us enviromentalists. lol… we ask questions. When most people choose not to ask (or make a conscience effort NOT to ask). When I ask, I am usually happily surprised with the answer (and always enlightened). “Is there local food at my Fred Meyers? Does Whole Foods really get their food from small farms they have on the walls? Where does Dharma place get their supplies to make these ‘organic’ pants?”… etc. This is one of those cases. I ask, and I always receive. It is just means it is more in my court to save the world… one coffee cup at a time.

    Blessings, Val

  10. There wasn’t a single place in the entire article where you tried to balance out both sides of the issue. Does it really make environmental sense? Who knows – it didn’t seem like you cared enough to flesh out the argument and approach it from both sides.

    What about –

    – The manufacturing process of the mugs
    – Transportation impacts caused by the volume/size difference
    – Repeatedly washing them (water/soap/energy waste)
    – The manuafacturing/transportation involved with commercial washers

    Have these points been considered and weighed in your pleas to Starbucks?

    Instead, it reads like a piece of propoganda, throwing in cringe-worthy tidbits about how you’re so enlightened that you can’t even remember the last time you had cow’s milk. What does that have to do anything?

    So you plead with the readers about how the evil Starbucks is literally destroying the planet, and isn’t organic or free-trade, yet you’re still a Starbucks customer. What a piece of useless drivel.

  11. I think going to starbucks can be considered an eco-sin, though it is now perhaps less of one than it was in the 90s.

    the whole point about consumers making a stand together is an important one though.

    That’s what we try and do at

    We’re now asking people to confess sins like these, so please drop by at our online green confessional at

  12. Val, that must be a Seattle-only thing (or maybe West Coast deal?) that you can get a real mug. I’ve definitely mentioned it nicely a bunch of times to the baristas at Starbucks in NYC, and Philly where I spend time and other places on the East Coast, and never had the mug option. Maybe it depends on the individual Starbucks? I’m glad they do it in some venues, which means maybe it would be easier to convince them to do it at all their locations.

    Jur-ind, I hate to say it, and I’m not in the habit of berating commenters, but you are an idiot. First of all I’m not going to bore the crap out of everyone showing exactly how much energy it takes to make a ceramic cup and ship it. OBVIOUSLY the upfront energy costs are higher to make a ‘real’ mug as opposed to a paper and plastic one. But a mug can be used thousands of times (there are mugs in my house I’ve had since I was 8!) and in results in far less waste. Think about if you go to Starbucks most days and get a coffee in a disposable cup- over a year let’s say that’s 300 cups and tops! As opposed to one mug that could be used by you and bunch of other people too. One mug at 10 people a day over a year could replace 30,000 cups! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that even if you factor in washing in that a real cup is a resource saver. AND ceramic is biodegradable (unlike plastic).

    One of the main tenets of the enviro movement is to stop using disposables and use reusable items instead. The math’s been done many a time and we know the answer.

  13. Uh, that’s 3,000 disposables.

  14. Starre –

    Have you worked in the restaurant industry? Next time you go into your local coffee shop, ask them how may mugs they go through. You won’t find any that have been around “since you were 8.” They break – frequently – and need to be replaced. Ceramic mugs also chip very frequently and need to be replaced. There is no realistic way a single mug can be used “a thousand times.” A small diner I worked in when I was younger would go through boxes of new coffee mugs every month.

    Yes, plastics are always a concern – why not ask for your drink without the plastic lid? It would be pretty close to resembling, you know, a mug…

    As for your last statment about the math has been done many times – do you have a source for this example? I’d love to see actual data supporting the argument that the increased energy used in manufacturing, transporting, and maintaining ceramic mugs is more environmentally friendly than recycled paper.

    Either way, my point is that we don’t know. I wasn’t claiming paper is superior to ceramic, just that your post could have used a little more balance, and a little less propoganda.

  15. Good points jur-ind, though I still disagree. I’ve also worked in restaurants (and ones where a lot of alcohol was served, which results in tons of breakages) and while some stuff inevitably gets broken (hey, at my house too) it’s not THAT much. Sounds like that must have been some crazy diner! I saw plenty of dishes, cups and glasses stick around for years.

    Also, I think teaching people to throw stuff out perpetuates that concept in other parts of the culture. Refusing a top is a great idea- I’d actually just started doing it because I figured at least I could not use another piece of plastic.

    And this isn’t propaganda, it’s an op/ed- that’s opinion. This is mine. The blog is labelled a rant. Who would I be propagandizing for anyway, the ceramic cup makers? I will see if I can find any data on this but I’m guessing probably not. As an environmental writer with almost 10 years of experience I CAN say I’ve looked at many government reports about recycling vs. landfilling, come up with my own equations to figure out percentages (I was a science major in college) and single-use items ALWAYS end up costing more environmentally than multiple-use ones. For example, you’d think recycling cans isn’t a big deal, really, vs. making new ones- they’re cheap and easy to make, from an easily obtainable resource- aluminum. But a recycled can, in the end, takes about 1/3 less energy to make, compared to a new one (even with the huge energy costs associated with recycling). Making new stuff – even paper cups- from raw materials just takes a hell of a lot of energy. The thing here is to think about the lifecycle, which is what I was trying to point out in the post. It’s not just making the cups, it’s growing, then harvesting the trees, making trees into paper (all of which takes place at different places and has to be shipped to the next processor) THEN boxing and shipping them to Starbucks (OK< so all of that is true for a mug too, except for the trees part), then using the cup for 15 or 20 mins, tossing it, then the garbage has to be shipped out (more fuel), it's landfilled and possibly burned, but either was it contributes to local groundwater contamination or air pollution AND takes up space (and costs taxpayer money)- and that happens over and over for every single cup. Whereas with the mug, it naturally costs a little more energy to produce in the first place, and yes, some more to ship it since it's heavier, but it stays around for a lot longer, even taking breakages into consideration. Honestly, if you know of someone who studies this stuff, let me know! As a person who is involved in environmental reporting every day, I've never seen any studies of anything like this for consumer products. You are asking for information that doesn't exist, though you could make some educated estimates if you had a lot of data on ceramics creation I suppose- want to dig it up and I'll do the math?

  16. So, i work for Starbucks (only for 3 weeks now. And i did feel like i was selling out and working for “the man” by joining the Starbucks team, but i wont go into that now) But i just have to let you know that we DO have glass mugs. Sure, we dont have many of them. But we do have some for the eco-friendly consumer who likes to stay at the store and drink all their coffee there. But, lets be real here, MOST people take it to go anyway. And those that do stay for a bit hardly ever drink the whole thing, which just means i’d have to dirty a glass AND waste a paper cup for them.

    Also, most coffee shops just simply dont have the room to keep hundreds of mugs stocked, nor do they have the manpower to have someone there whose sole responsibility would be washing all the mugs from the hundreds of people that come in everyday.

    Or, here’s an idea, why dont YOU buy your own mug and bring it with you everyday?? I know we’ll take your personal mug and fill it with your beverage of choice. We’ll even rinse it out for you if you havn’t washed it from the day before!

    Also, Starbucks is taking steps in the right direction, just so you know. They recently came out with the first certified paper cups that use sme recycled materials (i think its only like 10 or 20%, but still, thats better than none)

    I hate that now that i work for starbucks and am learning about what the company does that i have to defend the comapany to so many people. Really, Starbucks is pretty awesome for a corporation thats as big as they are. Lots of stores do give things back to the community, such as restoring parks and adoting highways. And they also do amazing things for the farms where they get there coffee beans. Like this one village was demolished by a hurricane and within 3 days a rep from Starbucks was there to find out what they needed to rebuild, and now that village is back on its feet, new and improved, thanks to money from corporate starbucks.

    I guess, that while i understand your point about the mugs i think you need to do a little research before bashing what you do not understand.

  17. I stopped reading after the first paragraph. call yourself eco-chick and then use Starbucks after protesting them. You have nothing to say to me.
    Mother earth may be a woman but, you dear, are a twat.

  18. Schue, thanks for writing in with your perspective! Like I said I’ve never seen or been told there were mugs at Starbucks when I asked at all the places I’ve been to so it’s news to me. As far as having the space and the manpower to wash the mugs, a) they seem to manage this problem in other countries just fine and b) seems like it would be another job for someone who might need one.

    And ctf, if us environmentalists aren’t pushing Starbucks’ to change (and know how they work) then who will?

  19. Maybe you should start bringing your own mug instead of expecting someone else to change. This is like politicians and celebrities crying about oil, then flying about their worthless lives in their fancy jets.

    You also didn’t address all the resources used up in creating, distributing, storing, maintaining, and disposing of mugs. I don’t know what they are, but I am sure they are at least equal or greater than the resources used by flimsy paper cups. Ceramics are pretty complex and probably pretty un-eco-friendly in the form that would be needed for Starbucks to maintain a reasonably price list.

    You’ve provided a typical un-researched, one-sided blog post.

  20. And blog posts are supposed to be researched and two-sided? What? I thought we leave that for the newspapers. I don’t understand why people expect blogs to be up to par with newspaper writing because 1] they don’t have the pressure to be and 2] as it is a blog, it is biased. Starre is writing from the view of an environmentalist. If you had your own blog titled, “I hate enviros,” I’m pretty sure it would be different.
    In America, people actually give you a pretty hard time about it. At the university restaurant I frequent, I brought back the same plastic bowl they put the bread bowl with clam chowder in and I just got weird looks. It’s really discouraging actually so I don’t even eat there anymore. But you made me realize, I do have to cut down on consuming disposables. Thanks for the great post!

  21. No,the way to stop Starbucks -screw the planet and close down local business – attitude is to stop using Starbucks.

    Using your logic we should all buy fur coats in an attempt to influence the manufacturers to stop wearing fur.

  22. Socialpyramid says:

    ctf- point taken. I think I will be going there less now (also now spring is here!) after thinking about it this much. Maybe I can arrange them to give me a shot of caffeine in my arm next time (ahhhh!!! medical waste!) 🙂

  23. ctf- point taken. I think I will be going there less now (also now spring is here!) after thinking about it this much. Maybe I can arrange them to give me a shot of caffeine in my arm next time (ahhhh!!! medical waste!) 🙂

  24. sorry, I was inadvertantly signed in under my roomies’ name.

  25. Thanks for writing about this! It drives me crazy all these people sitting in the cafe with their to-go cups. It’s absolute madness. What’s even more brutal is that if you talked to a lot of these people, they’d tell you that they’re concerned about deforestation, climate change, and so on.

    Even when I took political ecology courses at university, there are people bringing a trowaway cup to class every time….how hard is it to bring a reusable mug??? Ridiculous people.


  26. I have been ranting about coffee places that need to offer real, adult ceramics for adults to drink from for years.

    “Eco” all you want, the truth is that:
    * A paper cup makes your beverage taste like, well, paper. Scientific and marketing research have proven that the vessel used for serving a beverage has an impact to a customer’s overall enjoyment with it.
    * We’re not sitting around wearing party hats at the birthday party of some four-year-old. So why are we drinking our coffee like we are? Adult cups for an adult beverage for adult drinkers, OK?

    If you’re going to offer us some of the freshest coffee beans around, have it carefully roasted to perfection, serve it by skilled baristas, and then charge us $1.65 for the experience — why make us feel like we’re taking a pregnancy test down at the free clinic?

  27. Starre,
    Damn that powerful ceramic cup lobby.

  28. next time, bring your own mug and ask them to fill it !

  29. OctaVentiConPanna says:

    Back in the day, they used to have ceramic cups if you ask. Maybe they still do.

    And they have the Venti, Grande, and Tall because its a sales thing. They don’t want you to feel you got anything but something that was BIG. So all the sizes are big. It’s all good. Just remember that Tall is small and small is Tall unless you want a “Short” which is smaller than a small which they call a Tall. The “Short” is not on the menu cuz they don’t want to introduce words into your subconscious to make you feel you’re getting shorted. Maybe they still have the “Short”. Just ask.

  30. I live in Albany, NY and I recently saw a sign in my starbucks saying that if you’re gonna stick around ask for a mug! It might just be mine though, they’re really good about doing a lot of the corporate eco-stuff. They have out bags of coffee grounds every day for gardeners and encourage ppl to bring travel mugs. I have a problem with the big corporation thing too, but it’s right across from the law school and the indi-shops aren’t withing driving distance.

  31. A little over a year ago I got a travel mug for my friend and I. It’s spill proof so I can toss it in my bag and go. It has been at least 8 Months since I left home without it. I am Earth conscious, but not as much as I could be ( still working on it). This has been one of the easiest and best little changes I have made.

    On my usual I hit the coffee shops or coffee bar 2 times to fillup with hot water – I love my tea aswell. Then 2 or 3 times for coffee. With out a reusable mug I could be looking at 4 or 5 in the trash each day out.

    The best part about bringing my mug is not only do I get the convience of the to go, but my coffee stays nice and hot longer. Once you start useing them it’s hard to go with-out.

  32. The funny thing about this, is that in a place like 7-11 (a convenience store for those of you who aren’t familiar) you can go in and buy a reusable container, and go in every day and get a fill-up. They have metal containers and plastic ones. Plastic isn’t so bad in this regard, as you’re not throwing it away. You can use it for quite a long time. Not to mention the coffee is FAR less expensive than starbucks (though not quite as pretentious and foofie, but who really cares?)

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