You May Soon Sip Your Starbucks Drink From a Sustainable Cup

Those paper hot and cold to-go cups you get your drinks in at Starbucks, McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants? Don’t get too used to them in their current iteration. Soon they’re likely to change.

Some months back, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Yum Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell), Wendy’s, Nestle and Coca-Cola threw in together to help come up with a more sustainable cup design – one that would address a serious issue: An estimated 250 billion fiber cups collect in landfills every year and mostly just sit there, because, thanks to their polyethylene plastic liners, they take pretty much forever to biodegrade.

The companies formed a collective called the NextGen Consortium with the goal, initially, of creating a sustainable, innovatively designed disposable fiber cup that could be composted or recycled and used all over the world. The consortium, overseen by sustainability-focused investment firm Closed Loop Partners and advised by the World Wildlife Fund, put out an open call for designs in the “NextGen Cup Challenge.”

In late February, the consortium announced that, after carefully reviewing, over a period of four months, the 500 designs from more than 50 countries submitted in response to the call, it had selected 12 winners.

The winning designs fell into three categories. Eight of the new cup designs – from France, Netherlands, Finland, Belgium, Thailand and the U.S. -- aimed to eliminate the polyethylene plastic liners currently used in to-go cups to prevent leakage and maintain drink temperature, which impede recycling and composting.

One of the new designs, from a U.K. group, rethought materials used to make the cups altogether in order to make them fully compostable, using “plant-based, food grade and non-toxic products that biodegrade after use.”

The cups in the third category used a reusable cup service model, creating cup designs that wouldn’t be single use, but rather continue to cycle back for use, using innovative design and technology, time and time again.

One of the designs in this category, CupClub, from the U.K., involves RFID-trackable cups, lids and cases; drop points and incentives for returning cups after use; and eco-friendly collection, cleaning and delivery. “Think bike sharing, but for cups,” a press release advises.

Another of the proposed reusable cups, reCup GmbH, from Germany, also requires paying a deposit for the cup when you buy your drink and then returning the empty cup to any participating location to get the deposit back, promising, “no cleaning of the cup or carrying around required.”

The third winner in this category, Revolv, from Indonesia and Hong Kong, also follows a deposit/return model, but integrates smart packaging that connects the cups, intriguingly, “to Internet of Things technologies,” according to the press release.

So when will you start to see these cups in use? Not for a while, probably. Six or fewer of the 12 winning designs will be tapped to go through the next steps of development and testing, pricing, scaling and piloting. That process is expected to take about three years.

Presumably at that point, a clear winner will emerge and be introduced into the capable hands of baristas everywhere, and we’ll all be able to feel good about saving the environment with our skinny, half-caf, grande whatever orders. Maybe that will help alleviate some of the guilt for blowing all our money on them.

Photo coutesy of Starbucks

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