Case Studies

Recyclable Cups: McDonald’s and Starbucks Join Forces

5 months ago

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Recyclable Cups: McDonald’s and Starbucks Join Forces

The public concern over plastic pollution has not gone away.

While ditching plastic straws may have made the headlines, companies must strive to do more than that.

One obvious sign for improvement was the cups they were using. After all, what good is a paper straw if you’re not going to use recyclable cups?


Related: Read more articles about plastic pollution.


Don’t they already have recyclable cups?

At this point, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, McDonald’s cups aren’t fully plastic and they even have recycling bins around encouraging you to recycle them, so what’s the big deal?

Well, while the current plastic coated paper cups are technically recyclable, it doesn’t really work out in practice.

Basically, it’s really tough to actually recycle them and the infrastructure required to do so just doesn’t exist on a big enough scale.

This means if consumers take them home or put them in a recycling bin on the street, they’ll probably end up in landfill.

And that’s why we need to change things.

Recyclable Cups - McDonald's | Jason Wicks

What needs to happen?

Ultimately, companies need recyclable cups that can avoid going to landfill.

That could mean a cup that’s fully compostable, or just one that is easy to recycle and reuse without reducing material quality.

While it may sound rather trivial, it’s an absolutely mammoth task.

In all likelihood, it’s going to take time and money to come up with a scalable solution. Even then, it needs to be rolled out across entire industries so it’s the new norm.

Because of this, there is one fact that is unarguable:

No one company can do it on their own.

McDonald’s and Starbucks

Fortunately, McDonald’s and Starbucks have acknowledged this.

Through the NextGen Cup Consortium, these companies have each pledged $5 million to try and create a genuine workable solution.

While that’s all well and good, it’s the statement made by Marion Gross, the McDonald’s chief supply chain officer for the U.S., that has really interested me:

“We’re looking at this as a pre-competitive opportunity. Before we would even compete in the normal way we traditionally would compete, this is kind of a step further back in the chain, saying, ‘how can we work together to solve a problem that’s an issue for society, for the environment.”

It’s the words ‘pre-competitive opportunity’ that particularly resonate.

After all, McDonald’s and Starbucks do fiercely complete when it comes to quick coffee, so it’s only natural people would question their collaboration.

However, the idea of a pre-competitive opportunity is a fascinating one. Realistically, every company has the key things that they compete with, and the material of cups usually isn’t one of them. Because of this, McDonald’s and Starbucks can easily work together, and everybody is better off as a result.

McDonald's & Starbucks Recyclable Cups | Jason Wicks

What does the future hold?

With the NextGen Cup Challenge officially launching in September, this is definitely a project to watch with interest.

While I’m optimistic that companies can innovate their way out of environmental disaster, it’s important to recognise that the work won’t stop there. I’ll specifically be keeping an eye on what happens after a solution is found.

As I’ve highlighted, any solution needs to be scalable. Companies must roll it out across entire industries as the new norm. If a solution is found, it’ll then need to be adopted by every other cafe and restaurant if it’s to succeed. This might be interesting because companies may actually benefit from the solution without having invested the amount of time and money that McDonald’s and Starbucks have.

Secondly, we need to also rethink the entire infrastructure of recycling. The thing is, what can and can’t be recycled varies massively depending on where you are. In some places it’s organised by councils and public institutions, in others it’s left to the private sector.

Unless we also create a more universal system, I fear than any specific innovation will be prematurely ruled as ineffective.

Summary

In short, cups are important. With 600 billion cups distributed globally each year, this is clearly an area that requires attention.

Collaboration is no doubt crucial to this, and McDonald’s and Starbucks will hopefully prove that it can work.

I like the idea of a ‘pre-competitive opportunity’ and I believe most companies could benefit from identifying any psimilar partnerships.

Overall though, we need to understand the root cause of the problem we’re facing. Considering most current cups are technically recyclable, we need to change the fact that they still end up in landfill. Until a more universal recycling system is in place, I can’t see any innovation doing anything other than plaster over a gaping wound.

Hi! I’m an author and blogger within the fields of social impact and responsible business. I believe that businesses can be a force for good in the world, and this website contains my thoughts on how that can work.

2 Comments
  1. Andrew Chapman

    Great piece and spot-on. One big point to add, however, puts the responsibility back on us as consumers, and the fix is already within our grasp (pun intended)... It's simply bringing a reusable cup with us at all times. While there's a long way to go, big strides have been made with regard to plastic bags by encouraging people to bring their own "permanent" bags. After all, this is what our great-grandparents did. They also didn't have (for the most part) disposable cups. Carryout, takeout, and to-go were largely nonexistent. But now that this demon is out of the bag (is that a thing?), we need to be accountable as consumers as well. We absolutely must continue to pressure the large businesses to eliminate these things (supply), but we have to work on our side as well (demand). I'd be surprised if everyone reading this doesn't have a reusable cup already. Just get into the habit of taking it with you. If you're a straw-thru drinker, there are reusable cups with permanent straws. Whatever your preference, it's already available. It's not an easy habit to form, especially since most everyone alive grew up on the drive-thru culture. But with some effort, it can be done. Even if you just replace 60% of your to-go cup usage with a regular cup, that's a big help. And if 60% of us did this, that would make an enormous difference. Keep up the great work, Jason... excellent blog!

    • Jason Wicks

      Hi Andrew, Thanks for your comment! Personally, I'm not sure I agree with the idea that a consumer-led solution exists. At the moment, consumers are recycling correctly and the cups are still going to landfill. Of course, everybody using a reusable cup would do the trick, but I fear that such a 'solution' is too unrealistic to even be named as such. For me, the key to progressing with sustainability is to create systems that minimise the need for behavioural change as much as possible. Yes, responsible consumerism might buy us some time and lessen the negative consequences somewhat, but the onus of creating a long term solution, in my view, still remains with the resource heavy organisations. Thanks, Jason

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