The chain is giving grants to entrepreneurs working toward a recyclable cup
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Credit: Photo by SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Starbucks customers regularly shell out at least a few dollars for their daily cup of coffee. Now, the coffee giant is offering to hand back $10 million to entrepreneurs working to make those cups more sustainable.

Yesterday, Starbuck announced the NextGen Cup Challenge, a project with Closed Loop Partners—an organization that seeks to develop “the circular economy” by investing in sustainable consumer goods and advanced recycling technologies. The challenge earmarks $10 million for accelerator grants to entrepreneurs working toward the goal of a more sustainable cup. “Through this partnership, the Challenge will enable leading innovators and entrepreneurs with financial, technical, and expert resources to fast-track global solutions, help get those solutions to shelf, through the recovery system and back into the supply chain,” Rob Kaplan, managing director of Closed Loop Partners, said in the announcement.

You might be thinking, Wait, aren’t Starbucks paper cups already recyclable? It’s a common misconception: A recent UK report found that eight out of ten Brits assumed that was the case. But according to the company, Starbucks paper cups are only recyclable in “municipalities with the appropriate infrastructure, including Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and New York City.” The issue is that though the cups appear similar to recyclable paper products on the outside, their leak-preventing lining inside can pose a major problem for the recycling process. Methods exist for stripping this lining out, allowing the cups to be recycled, but obviously that creates another step in what could be a simpler chain.

As a result, outside of a seismic shift by consumers to reusable cups, developing a recyclable or compostable disposable cup is the best solution. And that’s what Starbucks is hoping to help facilitate. Though the company says it only accounts for about 1 percent of the estimated 600 billion paper and plastic cups used each year, the brand still wants to do its part. “Our store partners proudly pour sustainably sourced coffee in our 28,000 locations around the world, but everyone wants to take our ability to serve it sustainably to the next level,” said Colleen Chapman, vice president of Starbucks global social impact overseeing sustainability. “No one is satisfied with the incremental industry progress made to date, it’s just not moving fast enough. So today, we are declaring a moon shot for sustainability to work together as an industry to bring a fully recyclable and compostable cup to the market, with a three-year ambition.”

As an additional pledge, Starbucks has said it plans to make its efforts towards a sustainable cup “open source,” allowing others to utilize and innovate from their findings. “We want to make sure this technology is available to everyone because it’s the right thing to do,” Andy Corlett, director of packaging R&D for Starbucks, added. “The idea of environmental sustainability in packaging is not just a Starbucks issue. It’s a global issue.”