A Waste

Last Sunday as I left a Starbucks in North London, I glanced into the trash bin and saw heaps of plastic cups. I was both annoyed and confused. Why did they bother to have plastic recyclable cups if they did not have a recycling bin in the store? I decided to contact the UK Starbucks customer service to find out. I sent the following email:

Hello,
I really appreciate the promotion of reusable cups at Starbucks stores, but it still seems that there is a lot of waste generated from the occasional customer who does not have one of these reusable cups. I was wondering if it would be possible to have recycling bins in the cafes for the non-reusable items like water bottles, coffee cups, and the iced beverage plastic cups and lids.

Thanks!

I received a reply within hours!

Dear Alexandra,

Thank you for contacting Starbucks.

I think having more recycling bins is a great idea. Starbucks UK works closely with our suppliers to develop more environmentally friendly packaging for our packaged products in our coffee houses.  For example, our sandwich boxes and salad containers are biodegradable and our food deliveries are now made in plastic, re-useable hardwearing plastic crates, and not cardboard boxes or plastic bags. All of our cup sleeves and stirring sticks are made from sustainable resources, using post-consumer fibres and birchwood sourced from sustainable forests.

We welcome feedback from our customers and I have shared your comments with the appropriate team for their attention.

If you ever have any questions or concerns in the future, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

I was pleased to have so quickly received a response, but it also did not really seem like a response. It seemed like a canned answer from a packet distributed by the Starbucks sustainability team. Again I wondered, were these biodegradable and sustainably-resourced materials really sustainable if they could not be recycled or repurposed? Creation of in-store recycling and compost bins seems like a clear solution. But maybe there is not infrastructure in the local area for collection of these bins.

This infrastructural problem reminded me of recent dissertation interviews, where Tibetan ecotourism leaders explained problems with litter in scenic tourist sites. Many interviewees stated that rural areas still do not have strong waste management systems. Areas are too remote and have poor roads so large garbage trucks may not be able to reach them. Some villages do not have rubbish bins, and the travel of the nomadic lifestyle makes it difficult to have a garbage management system.

Therefore, the tourism leaders encourage tourists to bring reusable utensils and to carry around any waste until they reach a large city that has a sound waste collection system. Interviewees also noted that new kinds of waste introduced to these communities over the years has created the need for a waste management system. They commented on how rubber from shoes and plastic bottles are the largest problems, while previously waste had been mostly biodegradable.

Waste management is a problem spanning the globe. Some countries in the EU, like Norway, have developed a waste-to-energy system for rubbish disposal and energy generation. Many developed countries also export their waste to developing countries to free up space in landfills and increase trade balances. Products have been invented to reduce waste in oceans, like the Seabin, which sucks plastic and litter out of marinas. However, similar to the smog diamond product, this Seabin may only be a temporary solution to eliminate trash, and it may not prevent future production of trash. In addition, developing countries like China are creating stricter standards on imported trash, which may limit the amount of waste they take in.

One woman in New York has successfully reduced her waste each year to fit into a single mason jar. She shops at farmers markets with reusable bags, stores beer from a local distillery in jugs, uses a compostable tooth brush, and makes her own toothpaste and deodorant. It certainly takes a lot of work, and becoming greener won’t necessarily be easy work. Sacrifices will be needed, but certain sacrifices are harder to make for some than others. How many people have access to farmers markets or biodegradable toothbrushes? How many people have time to make their own deodorant? Such lifestyles may be easier for more affluent citizens to adopt, creating greater inequality gaps. If only a small percent of citizens can be greener, then it is not an impactful strategy.

This dilemma again addresses infrastructural challenges that sustainability poses. Creating a waste free planet will require universal access to recycling infrastructure, and universal standards for recyclable products. If a product in plastic wrap is cheaper or more widely available than a plastic free product, most citizens will choose the former. Like the food safety industry, sustainability in infrastructure will need to be a requirement of all industries. If there is no infrastructure to accommodate green products, then their production may be a waste.

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