Starbucks Wants to Send More Plastic to a Recycling Industry in Crisis

Thanks to Chinese restrictions on imported recyclables, even less of America's waste is getting reused.



When I reported last week that Starbucks' plan to ditch its straws will actually increase the coffee chain's plastic use, the company offered a novel defense of its new policy. While not disputing that it would be using more plastic after switching over to strawless lids, the Seattle-based business argued that because those new lids are recyclable, its new policy is still a net environmental win.

"The strawless lid is made from polypropylene, a commonly-accepted recyclable plastic that can be captured in recycling infrastructure, unlike straws which are too small and lightweight to be captured in modern recycling equipment," a company spokesperson told Reason.

A few of the company's more caffeinated supporters jumped on this logic, arguing that this more than earned Starbucks the praise that had initially greeted its strawless policy, and that any pushback was unwarranted:

So the company is allegedly keeping plastic trash from filling our overflowing landfills and trash-saturated oceans. There are three problems with this argument. The first is that the plastic piling up in landfills, as opposed to the sea, is not a serious environmental problem. The second is that even when plastic is recyclable, it is rarely actually recycled. The third is that none of this does anything to address the chief cause of oceanic plastic pollution.

Let's start with the landfills.

In a landmark 1996 New York Times article, John Tierney found that even if America keeps producing waste at the same rate, "all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing." So far, Tierney's analysis has held up. The nation is not running out of landfill space, nor are at-capacity landfills an environmental or even aesthetic burden. As Tierney noted in a 2015 Times story revisiting the issue, land used for garbage dumps wouldn't even "be lost forever, because landfills are typically covered with grass and converted to parkland, like the Freshkills Park being created on Staten Island. The United States Open tennis tournament is played on the site of an old landfill."

Sending plastic straws to be buried under future parks doesn't sound that bad.

Landfill space aside, some might argue that it's still a better environmental move to reclaim materials we've used already. Thus Starbucks' switch from unrecyclable straws to recyclable lids will save resources in the long run, even if it uses more plastic upfront.

Yet our recycling industry has long done a poor job of recycling plastic. According to a 2016 report from the Environmental Protection Agency, only about 9.5 percent of the plastic generated in 2014 was recycled that year, with another 15 percent being incinerated and a full 75.5 percent of it winding up in landfills. (These percentages are based on the aggregate weight of all plastic generated.) Afterward the plastic recycling rate has hovered around 9 percent.

Since the publication of that report, things have only gotten worse, thanks to China. Once one of the largest buyers of recycled materials, the country has essentially closed itself off from the world's waste.

According to Brandon Wright, communications director for the Waste and Recycling Association, China used to buy about 30 to 40 percent of all recyclable materials from the United States. But since 2013 the Chinese government has been conducting rigorous inspections on the materials entering the country, looking to weed out substandard plastics and papers. And this year China imposed far more stringent restrictions on the types of solid waste allow into the country. In January it banned the import of 24 formerly accepted materials. In March it reduced the amount of contaminated material (all those cheese-coated pizza boxes) that it would accept from 7 percent of a bale to .5 percent.

Wright says that about 25 percent of U.S. recyclable material is contaminated, making China's new standards nearly impossible to meet. When asked how much recyclable materials are shipped to China today, he says "very little."

China's exit has upended much of the recycling business here in the States. In environmentally conscious Oregon, some recycling companies—unable to find a buyer for what they collect curbside—have been granted waivers to just take the contents of recycling bins straight to the landfill. California, which once shipped two-thirds of its recyclable materials to China, is being hard hit by the new restrictions as well, prompting what the Los Angeles Times has called a "recycling crisis."

Yesterday, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported on the dire straits of Minnesota's recycling industry under these new Chinese restrictions. Some processors have reportedly started storing the materials they collect in trailers, unable to find a buyer for them. Others have laid off staff. Minnesota's waste haulers, who used to get paid to drop materials off at processing centers, are now being charged for their troubles. Recyclers are now desperately urging their customers to put more of their waste in the garbage bin, with the helpful mantra "when it doubt, throw it out."

So Starbucks wants to dump yet more plastic lids on an industry that can't keep up with the current volumes of recycling. Many of these new lids will no doubt meet the same fate as much of our current curbside recyclables and end up in a landfill anyway. Indeed, given that Starbucks' new lids use more plastic then the old lid-straw combination, we could wind up not just with more plastic being used in the stores but more winding up in landfills as well.

In fairness to Starbucks, whether a company's waste winds up in a landfill or is reused has little bearing on the biggest plastic pollution issue facing the world today: all that plastic winding up in the world's oceans. Some 8 million metric tons of plastic are estimated to end up in ocean each year.

But the vast majority of this comes not from Americans sipping lattes but from poorer coastal countries that lack decent waste management systems. This is undoubtably a problem, but it's a problem that needs to be addressed directly by improving waste management in the countries generating the most waste. Starbucks' plan to ditch straws for recyclable strawless lids—as well-intentioned as it is—does nothing to solve this problem.