Starbucks: The War Over the Paper Cup

I cringe every time I see someone with a paper to-go cup. Why? Because a paper — and styrofoam for that matter — to-go cup epitomizes waste and the American ever-rushing way of life (in Paris, asking for a “to-go” cup often gets a confused look as Parisians traditionally sit in cafes and relax when they drink their coffee.  I know this because I lived in Paris).

Paper cups are bad enough on their own, but multiply that by the demand for coffee in America and we have a significant environmental problem. Starbucks, for example, generates 4 billion paper cups a year. That breaks down into roughly 12 paper cups for every person in America — a ridiculously high figure. While Starbucks tries to cut back on waste by giving a $.10 discount to every customer who uses a reusable mug, it’s simply not enough: most people forget their reusable mug or will simply ignore any potential savings for sake of convenience.

So why not try the reverse approach, or loss aversion approach, and charge customers a $.10 fee each time they use a paper to-go cup? The fee model has shown to be effective at changing consumer behavior and reducing waste — a common example includes placing a tax on plastic bags. While rewarding green behavior is often the preferred approach, particularly for companies like Starbucks who have an avid fan base, it’s shown that people predominantly won’t reduce their waste unless regulated to do so. In other words, the lowest common denominator is laziness, and we all suffer from it.

Starbucks is well-aware of these common behavioral trends and refuses to instate a $.10 additional charge for each to-go cup for fear of losing their loyally addicted customer.  Mainly, the company doesn’t want to come across as if it’s penalizing its customers for drinking multiple cups of coffee every day in a disposable cup stating, “It comes down to the relationship that we’ve built with our customers over the past 40 years.”  That’s a pretty wasteful relationship!  I’d say it’s time to bring in that reusable mug.

Related Stories:

McDonald’s Trials to Stop Using Styrofoam Cups

Two Simple Questions that can Help Save the Planet

Ground-Up Bugs in Starbucks’ Strawberry Frappuccino


Photo Credit: JackieCheu


Kalese D.
Kalese D5 years ago

I dont remember the moment I discovered the amazing australian company Keep Cup but I do know what life is like now. If I dont have my reusable (also recyclable) barista standard size KeepCup with me then I dont buy a coffee to go, its as simple as that. Its also made me think about other things I could resuse. I now take my own container to my local chocolate shop rather than have it packaged in the cardboard and plastic they use. And the other day I noticed that my sushi to go came in plastic. I will now have a container for that too. So I have a big bag with me always but I like to know that Im doing my bit however small and really it isn't that hard.

Harshiita Sharma
Harshita Sharma5 years ago

Yes i think fining the customers for not using reusable cups is the way to go.

Louise A.
Louise Arkin5 years ago

I think it's important to change the paper cup default mentality. Whenever I order coffee at a Starbucks or any other coffee shop, I make a point of saying as I order it, "for a china cup." Then I try to watch them fill my order as sometimes they try to put it in paper anyway. If a shop doesn't offer a reusable cup, then I skip my coffee. I would rather skip a moment of pleasure than contribute to waste.
My moment of awakening came courtesy of my Italian brother-in-law who once worked in coffee sales. He had ordered coffee at a coffee shop and didn't like it...but his comment that stuck with me was "when coffee is bad, it's even worse in paper." I immediately realized that
coffee drinking is a treat and drinking from a paper cup is NOT much of a treat. After that, I made the environmental leap.
I think the best way to help is for people to insist on a reusable cup or mug whenever they intend to enjoy their drink in a coffee shop. If employers don't tell their workers to ask, then customers can be the agent of change.
The change among the to-go set is also important. Perhaps there could be signs encouraging customers to bring their own.

Tanya S.
Tanya Seaman5 years ago

What kills me is that the default cup is paper, even if you're planning to sit there. I always have to make a really strong point (not just at Starbucks) of telling them I want a real cup. At Starbucks these are hidden somewhere out of the way.

Carole R.
Carole R5 years ago


Alex H.
Alex H5 years ago

Isn't it a better idea to take your own cup or mug anyway,from a health point of view? The amount of times I have contracted sore lips from a coffee cup in a cafe,has now made me change to my own!Isn't it much nicer to drink coffee out of a china cup than a paper one ??!!The way some lazy humans are hooked on convenience just beggars belief,and just adds to the mountains of unsustainable waste,not to mention the trees destroyed for throw away paper products!

Elaine A.
Elaine Al Meqdad5 years ago

Just please make the paper cup thick enough so it doesn't get soggy and/or burn your hands to hold it.

Julianna D.
Juliana D5 years ago

great idea! charge for the cups! That will change everyone's mind.

Sergio Padilla
Sergio Padilla5 years ago

Thanks for the article! It is so true. This is just another example of how the the life style of US citizens are damaging the environment.

E A.
Eileen A5 years ago

I think the article is right about laziness. Instead of charging 10 cents maybe they should reduce it by 10 cents if you use your own mug and see how that works.