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.

NEXT: Former President Obama Criticizes Leftist Shutdown Culture

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  2. I love Christian’s articles so much, they’re just pure shit talk. Remember when everyone mocked him for having no personality?

    1. He dropped the mike with this one

      1. More like he beat up a retarded kid.

        1. Why do you know what that looks like, from either perspective?

          1. You answered your own question.

            1. That doesn’t make sense though. Did you realize you were caught and needed to say SOMETHING?

              1. I mean, I’m not a kid, so it’s stupid for that reason, and I’m not retarded, despite your personal dislike of me, so it really just looks like you realized you were either beating up retards, or were the retard yourself and HAD TO SAY SOMETHING.

                1. I really don’t get that about you. You say something that doesn’t even make sense because it’s better than being the butt of the joke.

                  What kind of self esteem issues do you have that would make that true? It’s really kind of sad, and when you combine it with the constant effort you make to fit in by cracking extremely bad jokes ( like you did here) one wonders if you have any ability to interact with humans normally.

                  1. How many times have you thought about self harm? Many, I imagine. Has it ever occurred to you that you are a broken, poorly adjusted, ineffectual shadow of a person, desperately trying anything to fit in with society?

                    Who thinks “you answered your own question” is actually an answer to “why do you know what beating up/getting beaten up” looks like?

                    I mean, it doesn’t make any sense temporally. Even if I were retarded, you made the claim before you ever interacted with me.

                    So you admitted you attack retards. Or, alternatively, you admitted you were a retard.

                    Why would you think that was flattering to you, in such a way, that you would openly admit it?

                    You mean you actually kick around retarded kids?

                    That’s some pretty foul behavior, and that’s coming from me.

                    1. Well, he got himself really.

                    2. But thank you anyway, I appreciate it.

                    3. Crap BUCS, now I feel bad for kicking him around. It just occurred to me that I dumped all over him for his retard coming out attempt.

                    4. Hey listen Chipper mmmm whatever, I’m genuinely sorry I shit all over your coming out attempt. I shouldn’t have said all those things about your personality, it’s not your fault you’re like that. I feel really bad that I pointed out all the things you do, it really isn’t your fault you are the way you are.

                      Kudos on coming out, it couldn’t have been easy.

                    5. It’s ok man, I understand, you did the best you could with what you had and I shit all over you.

                      I would probably run away and cry like you are, so no hard feelings. We can take it up another time, when I see you have recovered and can post again.

                    6. Damn someone get Chipper to the burn unit stat.

                    7. Yeah, I feel bad for him now, he tried posting in a couple other threads and was obviously shaken.

    2. Recycling contributes to climate change. Let’s bury all that carbon in landfills instead.

      1. The funny thing is this is actually a legitimate argument to make if you really think climate change is a big deal! Especially if you think it is mostly due to human emissions. I love how much of their own stuff doesn’t even make sense within their own delusional paradigm they have created for themselves. It is entirely about virtue signalling, with nothing actually having to make any sort of logical sense.

  3. “Thanks to Chinese restrictions on imported recyclables”

    Hey Fuck You!

    1. I remember a PBS story a few years back about trade between U.S. and China.
      Outside of the occasional Boeing order, the biggest thing we sent them was recycling material of the the stuff they sent us. Our top export to China was literally garbage.

      1. Yup! Especially scrap metal!

  4. “Some processors have reportedly started storing the materials they collect in trailers”

    Trailer trash? That sounds like cultural appropriation

    1. It only effects white people, and they are born privileged, so it might not be a bad thing.

  5. “But the vast majority of this comes not from Americans sipping lattes but from poorer coastal countries that lack decent waste management systems.”

    That point is completely lost on the plastic straw pitchfork brigade.
    It’s like they want to ban straws just to feel the power they have over others, not to actually solve a real problem.
    They are the problem

    1. I think this is exactly what this is about.

    2. Power over others and feeling good about your righteousness are exactly what straw denouncers and recyclers in general are about. Recycling is “That stupid heathen is going to hell! Thank the Lord I’m saved” style religion for the modern day. Maybe if we wash our hands until they bleed Mother Gaia will forgive our sins.

  6. “Starbucks is a private business that’s trying to be more eco friendly. There’s nothing wrong with that. @reason should be deeply ashamed of trying to smear a corporation that’s doing their part to reduce waste – without the force of government.”

    Well, no.
    Starbucks is doing some green-washing in the hopes that eco-worshipers will get the “feelz” and keep showing up for expensive flavored water.
    I do not begrudge them doing so; peddling BS to dimbulb customers pretty much defines the Starbucks business model, not to mention employing all those folks with post-graduate degrees in “X-Studies”. The last ain’t getting rich, but Starbucks stockholders sure have, so more power to them.
    But let’s be honest: ‘Reducing waste’ is the last on the list of reasons Starbucks did this, and it’s pretty much a worthless goal even if it was, regardless of Ms. Butcher’s religious beliefs.

    1. “‘Reducing waste’ is the last on the list of reasons Starbucks did this, ”

      Waste is an expense. They don’t need any more reason than that. It doesn’t dispose of itself.

      1. This doesn’t reduce waste for Starbucks. At best it changes the nature of Starbucks plastic waste. Based on the amount of plastic used in the lids, it will more likely increase it.

        They will pay more for the lids. They will pay more because their overall volume of waste will increase.

        This is a bad business decision that they hope will be offset by anti-straw sheeple’s good will.

        It will not be.

  7. But but…feelings!

    Anyway, it sounds like it was never so much recycling as selling and shipping our waste over to China.

    BTW, shouldn’t the socialist be complaining the capitalism is bad because we are selling trash literally? Everyone should have their own square of landfill

  8. But but…feelings!

    Anyway, it sounds like it was never so much recycling as selling and shipping our waste over to China.

    BTW, shouldn’t the socialist be complaining the capitalism is bad because we are selling trash literally? Everyone should have their own square of landfill

  9. This is Starbucks running a publicity/marketing campaign, not any kind of political/environmental act.

    1. They’re trying to erase the memory of their racism/exercise of property rights.

  10. How confident are we that the Chinese recycling companies were actually recycling the plastic and not just putting it into a landfill or the ocean?

    1. Well, they were paying for it …

  11. Hey, how about instead of shipping all this plastic to China, we use it to build a wall at the border?

    1. A wall of garbage, with Trump’s name on it?

      You know that’s not a half-bad idea.

    2. We could actually! If we just bailed it all up, stacked it, and then sprayed it with some sort of plastic or fiberglass on the outside it would probably be quite resilient actually!

  12. The sad part is that there really is some real economic value in all this plastic. We now have enzymes that will digest plastic back into its original components.

    1. What’s the economics of it?

      1. Well, if you could recover your starting materials back from essentially free garbage, you wouldn’t have to buy new stuff.

        1. No, sorry, I meant is there any analysis of how much the production of those enzymes? Overall cost of that process and recycling? Seems like an interesting thing, and I was wondering how cost effective it currently is.

          1. They break down PET plastics– which is good as they’re the most commonly used plastic.

            1. Yes, I’m just wondering if anyone did some economic analysis of this process currently.

              1. ??? Google it ???

          2. The economics are worse than refining oil into ployethylene, else this would be an actual industry. Once oil gets to 400$/bbl, it should be a thriving cottage industry.

  13. The landfill I remember going to with my dad when I was little…which we just called “the dump”…has been turned into a municipal golf course, with hills and trees and water features. Nary a plastic straw or refrigerator in sight. The dump that I drove past when I was going to college is now a brand new fancy housing division, with lakes, parks and a new school. But, if you catch the right view through some of the house windows, you might see an occasional refrigerator. So there’s that…

    1. What about the old Indian Burial Grounds?

      1. Those are for (haunted) housing developments.

  14. Drink less coffee. That shit is nasty.

    Save environment by never giving Starbucks a penny.

  15. Because they *can* be processed and the straws *cant*

    And as we all know, *can* means *will*, right?

    1. At a provable reduction in C02 emissions and toxins in the environment. Oh wait, you ask too much sir!

  16. because those new lids are recyclable, its new policy is still a net environmental win.

    Even if they are recyclable, which I doubt, it’s still not necessarily a net environmental win, depending on the energy inputs and chemistry required to recycle said plastics. The environmental movement should die in a plastic fire.

    1. Greens block ever new recycling plant or expansion. So where is all this stuff that they want recycled going to go?

      Recycling of cans and glass is very very water intensive. Do we really want to use the precious water of the southwest to wash out bottles?

      1. So where is all this stuff that they want recycled going to go?

        The landfill. QED.

        At an increased cost and use of energy.

  17. I don’t see any blue checkmarks on those tweets…

  18. Now that Starbucks is done with their virtue signaling, maybe they can *also* do something that actually helps the environment? Nah, probably too much to ask.

  19. My county stopped recycling glass over a year ago, because shipping was too expensive, and recyclers had more then they could deal with. A bit of whining at first, but now it all goes in the trash.

    That it was cost effective to ship trash half way around the world is most likely the result of the horrific and costly regulations to hit any US based processor. Recycling is a messy business, but the Greens block ever new plant or plant explansion.

    As China shuts the trade down, either the Green’s mess will go to other countries, or the Greens will have stop blocking US based facilities.

    1. They’re “claiming” it can go to india now. No word on what India does with it after it hits their shores.

    2. This was one of the first things I was thinking… Why isn’t this shit being done in the USA?

      I know from some past reading I have done that there is actually a lot of hand sorting that is done by people… So high labor costs there… But after that it is a large, but mostly automated process. Seems we should be able to recycle a lot of this stuff at home, and the USA is actually still very competitive in the plastics industry as far as new plastic goes.

      So it must be stupid environmental BS holding it back.

  20. I don’t know why we don’t burn plastic and paper trash for power. Okay, might be a little dirty, but it’s like free energy.

    1. The Danish do it quite successfully actually.

    2. There is a decent amount of that that happens even in the USA. I think it has gone out of vogue because of emissions, but there are still a lot of older plants doing it. We should probably be doing it more.

  21. Starbucks? Isn’t that the public restroom place where you can buy coffee?

  22. I went to a meeting once at Starbucks, and I’m not a coffee drinker. I asked for a coke, and they looked at me like I was insane. I found out quickly that the only alternatives they had to coffee were cans of flavored water, and $8 scones. Fuck that place.

  23. Why not simply switch to paper straws?

  24. So I haven’t looked into the details in awhile… But last time I ever did, I seem to recall that it used more energy, and hence was also higher cost, to recycle plastic than to simply make new plastic…

    Anybody know if this is still the case? New technology is always coming out, so perhaps it isn’t anymore. I dunno.

    If it is still the case, then it probably makes a lot more sense to just burn it for energy, or put it in a land fill, since we have no shortage of space for that.

    If it IS more efficient in terms of energy input than producing new stuff, then we obviously should just try to improve the process to where it can be economically viable. Wasting stuff when you don’t need to is always a bad idea, but if it costs more and uses more energy then you’re actually CONSERVING resources by not recycling.

    But it seems to me there must be SOME good use this stuff can be put to. I seem to recall hearing somewhere that a lot of glass is actually being recycled into aggregate for filler in concrete I think? What about something like that where it doesn’t have to be pure and super clean, but like giant plastic bricks for building materials, etc?

    I’m sure some creative capitalist pig should be able to find a way to utilize billions of dollars in raw materials people are literally willing to just give away at this point!

    1. Yeah, residential recycling, with the exception of aluminum, is a financial and environmental disaster. We spend more (and support bigger impacts) just to feel good. Plus much of recycling is now a lie, as material (including from my town) never actually gets, well, recycled.

      1. That’s what I figured.

        I’m no dirty hippie, but I do hope we can come up with some clever solutions to some of this stuff. It’s not like landfills are the evil thing idiots think they are, BUT it would be awesome if we could come up with better ways to utilize these materials.

        I was actually thinking about the aggregate type idea for plastics more, and it seems like there should be some clever stuff to do there… Basically anything where the sorting of types of plastic, and how clean they are, could be cut out because it doesn’t matter in the end product.

        Also if you could do it where you didn’t need to use the energy to melt it back down, but simply chop it up or something… When thinking on crazy big issues I often wish I had technical skills in a lot of weird disciplines, because there are billions to be made in something like that if you could just come up with the right process. SOME environmental issues are real things we should figure out, but all the leftists that get involved seem to be such dunces, who usually just care about LOOKING like they care, it makes me wish I was involved sometimes!

  25. If Starbucks would go back to selling just coffee most of this hysteria about trash would go away. But those fucking ice cream sundae “drinks” (you know, the frappe-whatevers with whipped cream, chocolate sauce and sprinkles) have to come with domed plastic lids and mega straws.

    Grow up, people.

  26. when was the last time you saw someone take a recyclable lid off their latte (or anything), rinse it, & drop it in recycling while dropping the paper cup in the trash (or even skip the rinse??)?? I’m a near-fanatic recycler, & I don’t do it. Starbucks is just full of it, aside from all of the other good points in the article.

  27. The caffeinated geniuses missed the fact that the cups themselves are NOT RECYCLABLE, so the chances of patrons putting the lids into a container for recycling is near 0.

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