Starbucks trying reusable cups to cut down on waste while teaming with Seattle recycling startup

A reusable Starbucks cup is scanned and then dropped into a contactless kiosk at a participating Starbucks store drive-thru. (Starbucks Photo)

Starbucks is launching a new effort to cut down on waste from its ubiquitous beverage cups with a limited trial in Seattle of a “Borrow a Cup” program.

The program will offer customers the option to receive their beverage in a reusable cup which can be returned to contactless kiosks at one of five participating Seattle stores. Starbucks is also teaming with Ridwell, a Seattle startup that picks up hard-to-dispose-of household items for reuse or responsible recycling.

The newly designed cups will have a $1 refundable deposit. When a customer is done with the cup, they can scan the cup at a drive-thru or lobby kiosk and then drop it into an opening. Then they scan their Starbucks App to receive a $1 credit to their Starbucks Rewards account, in addition to 10 Bonus Stars.

The program will run through the end of May, and the company says each borrowed cup will replace up to 30 disposable cups. Starbucks says it is committed to reducing single use cup waste as part of a larger goal to reduce waste by 50% by 2030.

The cup problem is a big one for Starbucks. CNN previously reported that the company has spent 30 years trying to come up with a greener alternative to its logo-emblazoned paper cup, which is essentially the brand’s billboard. It reported that Starbucks used 3.85 billion paper cups for hot beverages in 2017 alone.

“We understand the interdependency of human and planetary Health, and we believe it is our responsibility to reduce single use cup waste. We will lead the transition to a circular economy,” Michael Kobori, Starbucks chief sustainability officer, said in a blog post.

Ridwell members can add Starbucks reusable cups to their boxes for easy pickup. (Starbucks Photo)

Ridwell launched in 2017 and CEO Ryan Metzger told Mekhato Tuesday that his startup views the Borrow a Cup effort as huge opportunity and an ideal use case for reuse.

“Many places struggle to even recycle cups like these and even in places that do (like Seattle), it can be difficult to keep coffee cups free of food-related contamination,” Metzger said. “In partnership with Starbucks, we aim to make reuse as easy-to-use as single-use and are excited about the huge impact that could have on waste reduction.”

Ridwell, which worked with groups at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to collect hygiene supplies for vulnerable groups, is always looking for brands interested in partnering on new approaches to sustainability, Metzger said. Last fall they partnered with Homegrown Goods to collect ice packs from Ridwell members that they then used in local delivery of groceries and meal kits. In early 2021, they collected fleece jackets and shells for ReFleece to be made into tote bags and pouches.

Both of those and the Starbucks partnership are in addition to the “featured categories” Ridwell has every two weeks where members have the opportunity to reuse or recycle items not accepted curbside.

Metzger said Ridwell has thousands of members in every Seattle neighborhood and has expanded as far north as Everett and Snohomish, as far east as Woodinville and Issaquah, and as far south as Tacoma. The company also added Portland late last year and has seen strong adoption there.

With more people at home during the pandemic and ordering goods online, Ridwell has seen a rise in Amazon mailers, bubblewrap and Styrofoam for recycling. To date, Ridwell members have diverted over 1 million pounds to reuse and recycling, and Metzger said that amount is going up every day.

Starbucks reusable cups can be placed in Ridwell boxes for pickup. The coffee giant is partnering with GO Box to collect borrowed cups from stores daily, professionally clean and sanitize them using commercial dishwashing equipment, and put them back in circulation within 48 hours.

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