Starbucks, K-Cups, Earth Day and Me

Friday’s Earth Day article in the Washington Post, “Starbucks, Whole Foods and how they and other corporations stack up on Earth Day,” by Sarah Anne Hughes, made me think it’s time to blog….

I’m an environmentalist/sustainability proponent in the making – I expect it to take the rest of my lifetime of constant redefinition and making of new understanding to come close to what some folks have known for a long time. Yet, in fact, I am trying to make new understanding, change my own behaviors and put into action what I can begin to cognize intellectually. If you relate to my growing pain, please let me know. Here’s my most recent crisis of conscience – should I avoid Starbucks?

I like Starbucks coffee. I like that Starbucks has ethically sourced and roasted coffee for 40 years. I like that Starbucks pays its employees a living wage. I like that the food served at Starbucks “never has additives” – trust me, I can feel the difference.

I don’t like that most of what I purchase at Starbucks comes in one-time containers. I dutifully recycle plastic cups and paper sleeves, but I don’t know what to do with the paper cups or napkins – hey Starbucks – how ‘bout providing compostable trash collection the way Whole Foods does?

My real moral outrage toward Starbucks, however, takes the form of the K-cup. The K-cup represents the most energy-intensive, resource-wasting, environmentally insensitive way to make a cup of coffee on the planet. Let’s see, K-cups are for GMCR’s Keurig Single-Cup brewers – electric machines dedicated to making one cup of coffee at a time, each cup requiring the manufacture and use of a single-portion plastic object for one time use, and usually filling a disposable cup. In March, Starbucks inked a deal to manufacture, market, distribute and sell Starbucks coffee in K-cups. Starbucks – how do you rationalize your K-cup expansion with otherwise ethical behavior? Have you gone off your nut?

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6 Responses to Starbucks, K-Cups, Earth Day and Me

  1. Beth Genly says:

    Hi Carol,
    OK, you got me thinking about Starbucks all morning… on this issue, we have the option of voting with our feet — simply by ignoring the K-cups offering, which sounds unattractive as well as un-green to me.

    Getting therm to give up this dumb idea is small change though, isn’t it, for the environment, even looking at such a big company as Starbucks?

    How about this change: give up meat and dairy, at least one day a week. That would be fantastic for the environment, and fantastic for our health. Big, big double payoff, from a much easier change!

    Here’s two links to great info about that idea:
    A Washington Post article called The Meat of the Problem:


    A Scientific American article called
    “How Meat Contributes to Global Warming.”

  2. Don’t forget that K-cups, while they increase plastic consumption, use less water and actual coffee than brewing whole pots of coffee that are often partially disposed of when there is excess.

    I don’t have enough information to calculate which uses more resources, per cup of coffee actually drunk. But all these resource inputs must be added up to make the determination between options.

  3. It seems that this would get at the heart of how to combine environmental responsibility and capitalism. On the one hand, Starbucks has generally tried to be green, and on the other hand, they’re a business that must make money, or they won’t stick around to save the environment in the first place! The thing about K-cups is that they are clearly growing in popularity — a fad? Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

    I know a lot of people that have them that adore the fact that they can quickly and easily get just one cup of coffee…. which sounds a lot like why people go to places like Starbucks, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t say that such devices stealing some would or could put a place like Starbucks under, but it seems realistic that they could take a bite out of Starbucks’ business. From the consumer’s perspective, Keurig-style coffee makers make more expensive coffee per cup than a traditional coffee maker, but it is still way less expensive than a daily stop at Starbucks.

    So if you assume that some people are frequenting Starbucks less often as they enter into a love affair with Keurig coffee makers, it is only solid business sense that Starbucks should try to extend into that market to offset its losses and keep its brand in front of coffee consumers….. but as you point out, at what cost to its environmental conscience?

    I would argue that the criticism should not be about Starbucks making K-cups, but about Starbucks simply jumping on the bandwagon of environmentally poor K-cups. Couldn’t the company innovate with some of the compostable plastics available (the ones I’ve seen are made from corn or something) to at least make a greener option? Whether Starbucks makes K-cups or not, people will be buying them. So it stands to reason that if Starbucks can make a greener option, even if not perfect, and corner part of the K-cup market, then it is actually better than if they did not make K-cups at all, as some people would not be buying the less environmentally friendly options. (Obviously a profoundly simplified take on economics and markets, but not totally out of left field, right?) And from a consumer perspective, even if greener K-cups wound up costing more, I’m sure they’d still be cheaper than a cup from an actual Starbucks location!

    So to summarize: for business reasons, Starbucks really had to do something to keep their brand in front of coffee drinkers and retain customers. Environmentally, they could have done more than blindly follow — where’s the innovation?

  4. Beth Genly says:

    So, if I buy a K-cups setup and make one at home or work, instead of driving to a SB to get a cup, do I save enough gas (carbon) to make it worth it? If I make a cup of coffee and splash a little low fat milk or soymilk in it,. how much have I saved the healthcare system by not overburdening my body with a caramel macchiato with extra whipped cream?

    I still think we’re splitting hairs, here. Fill the jar with the big rocks first, in my view.

  5. Ryan Young says:

    I agree with the comments that there are various tradeoffs involved with driving to Starbucks, K-cups, organic vs. non-organic, etc. I also agree that in the grand scheme of your footprint (carbon, waste, etc.), coffee might be small compared to other “big rocks” like flying and eating meat, dairy. However, I also think that to make a good decision on this you don’t need specific lifecycle analysis data…use your gut. Big rock or small rock, you probably understand that it’s generally better to buy organic, multi-use products (e.g., organic coffee made en masse vs. single serve), and to not drive there to buy it, but walk or ride your bike. So I think your instinct is right to question this, and let your gut also give you the answer.

  6. Dank says:

    9 billion non-recycleable little plastic units, is a big pile of ‘rocks’. I believe that massive coorporations are obligated to produce environmentally products, and if they don’t we need to boycott.

    I also prefer supporting small, independent roasters, grinding my coffee at home, and brewing it in a French Press. It takes five minutes, you’re supporting small business, your coffee tastes way better, and you are spending way less on coffee. Oh, and you can compost the grounds!

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