Announced nearly a year ago, the cups are finally landing in select locations this week.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated March 10, 2020
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On their literal surface, Starbucks coffee cups seem like they should be as relatively environmentally-friendly as a single-use cup can be: They’re made of paper, and paper is recyclable. However, the problem lurks on the inside: To prevent leaking, they’re coated with a thin layer of plastic. So though these cups can be recycled in some areas, it’s far from universal and difficult regardless. As a result, the current cup is like a tasty looking cake with a thin layer of poison on the bottom: far from as good as it looks.

But this week, Starbucks has begun trialing a new type of paper cup—one featuring “technology [that] can be recycled more readily than the current cup”—and just as you may have never quite realized how non-recyclable the old cup was, the coffee chain says it hopes customers won’t realize these new better cups are any different than the old ones when it comes to enjoying your hot coffee.

Starbucks

The new “BioPBS-lined” cups launched yesterday in select stores in Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and London. “The tests are designed to provide key insights and learnings into the partner and customer in-store experience with the goal of no noticeable differences in performance between the new cup and current cup,” the company wrote in announcing the new trials. BioPBS—a type of biodegradable plastic from Mitsubishi Chemical—is described by Starbucks as making the cups “certified compostable and recyclable.”

It’s been nearly a year since the chain first announced these trials were being planned, during which the chain says they “conducted months of internal research and development at their Tryer Center, putting the various cups through an array of tests for quality and performance measurements. In addition, the company evaluated manufacturing logistics, scalability, and pricing of each cup.”

But even after all that, Starbucks states this new cup is only one of many options it's considering—just part of the commitment they made in 2018 to the NextGen Cup Challenge to find solutions to the problem of single-use cups. “The testing doesn’t end there,” the company wrote on its website. “Starbucks is currently working with Closed Loop Partners, the Consortium [both involved with NextGen] and other businesses on continuing to test and validate the recyclability of the various challenge winners, including the BioPBS cup. We are also continuing the work with key stakeholders in the recycling industry to advocate for increasing the overall recyclability of cups and ensure they are ultimately accepted within municipalities.” Another option, returnable reusable cups, also started a trial run in (non-Starbucks) coffee shops last month.

In the end, these trials are a positive step forward, but only a step, and one that’s been two years in the making. We’re still likely a long way from truly “solving” the single-use cup problem, but it’s good to finally see some progress.