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Starbucks announces major change to its to-go cups — here's why it matters

The pilot program is an expansion of a similar test last year that Starbucks ran on its own.

The pilot program is an expansion of a similar test last year that Starbucks ran on its own.

Photo Credit: Closed Loop Partners

Starbucks is leading a new program to offer customers free, reusable, returnable to-go cups in Petaluma, California, which becomes the first U.S. city to make reusable cups the default option.

The three-month pilot, which also involves 30 other local and national restaurants — including Starbucks' competitors — will remove the need for hundreds of thousands of single-use cups. 

Here's how it will work: 

• The program will start Aug. 5 and run through Oct. 28, 2024
• The BPA-free cups will be branded purple with "Sip, Return, Repeat" on each cup
• 30 restaurants will participate, including competitors like Dunkin', Peet's, Burger King, Yum! Brands, and other local businesses, in addition to the city's Starbucks stores and licensees in Target and supermarkets 
• Over 60 return bins will be installed across the city, where customers can return the cups, with ads on billboards, bus stops, and other public locations raising awareness    
• Returned cups will be professionally cleaned, sanitized, and recirculated before reuse

Amelia Landers, vice president of product experience innovation at Starbucks, told The Cool Down: "This is all part of Starbucks' goal to become a resource-positive company, including cutting its waste footprint in half and ensuring that all of its packaging is reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2030." 

In January, Starbucks became the first national retail coffeehouse to accept reusable cups for in-person and mobile orders, also offering customers discounts on their beverages. Landers told The Cool Down that in the last month alone, nearly 2 million customers have ordered with their own cup. 

But this time, instead of asking customers to bring their own cup, this pilot will make a reusable cup the default, without any cost to the customer. "The opportunity is to unlock a behavior that actually sticks," Landers said. "Our big thing to solve with reusables is to help achieve long-term behavior change, and to do that with ease and convenience is key."

The reusables pilot is part of a partnership with NextGen Consortium and will be led by the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners. They estimate that we use 250 billion single-use cups globally each year — the majority of which are thrown away. Research shows that disposable paper cups filled with hot liquids can also expose people to harmful microplastics.

The pilot program is an expansion of a similar test last year that Starbucks ran on its own, but this time, the company is looking to drive "systems change" by partnering with other brands, added Helen Kao, director of reusables at Starbucks. 

"What if we saturated a community, and reusables became the cultural norm? Now it's an ecosystem of global brands, local businesses, city leaders, and community groups working together," Kao said. "The industry is realizing that it's easier to partner than do things alone."  

Photo Credit: Closed Loop Partners

The key to success will be making it easy to return the cups. "Locations with routine customers and return bins nearby when you're done with your drink drive higher return rates," Landers explained. Due to confusion surrounding the new bin technology, they've simplified the bin, added "more disruptive signage… and make it as easy as possible for customers to return their cups on the go."

Results from the first three months will inform a broader roll-out of the program, says Landers. "We're working towards a future where every Starbucks customer can order and enjoy a beverage served in a reusable cup — either one they bring, or one we provide," Landers said.

From 2022 to 2023, Landers said they saw the percentage of reusable cups at their global company-operated stores increase from 1% to 2%. "While this may seem like a modest change," she explained, "2% of all Starbucks beverages sold represents a substantial volume!"

To learn more about the project and see a full list of participating businesses, go here.   

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