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More Corporate Greenwashing: Starbucks' Cups, Eco-Friend or Eco-Foe?

Starbucks goes through roughly 2.3 billion paper cups a year and touts its national award for using cups made of 10 percent recycled material.

The sleeves on the cups even plead, "Help us help the planet."

But don't be confused. Starbucks promotes recycling on its cups, but the cups themselves aren't recyclable here or in most other cities nationwide.

"Well, they tricked me," said Nicole Mejias, 22, a self-described Starbucks freak. "I immediately associate recycling with Starbucks because of their cups. That's so hypocritical. I would have never guessed" that the cups weren't easily recyclable.

The reason: The plastic coating that keeps the cup from leaking also prevents it from being recycled with other paper products. That could be overcome, but it would cost more.

Anything can be recycled, but "The system is not designed to take the individual Starbucks cups," said Steve Sargent, director of recycling for Rumpke Recycling, Columbus' largest recycler.

Waste Management, North America's largest recycler, won't take the cups, either.

But many employees have been telling customers otherwise. They say their Seattle-based employer never made the situation clear.

"I totally thought the cups were recyclable. I think almost everyone did," said Melanie O'Brien, an Otterbein College student studying environmental initiatives who has worked at Starbucks.

Recently, workers at a Clintonville Starbucks started taking cups to recycling sites themselves, because they felt guilty that they were being thrown away.

But an employee from the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio informed them that their efforts were pointless because recyclers would accept neither their plastic nor paper cups.

An official with the Ohio Division of Natural Resources commended Starbucks for using recycled materials, but said the company is missing a bigger point.

"There's a big push for companies to be green nowadays and for all the positive publicity that comes with it," said Chet Chaney from the division's recycling and litter-prevention office.

Starbucks is picking the "down-hanging fruit" of positive publicity with its cups, he said. "What's most important is that they also look at what happens after the cup is used."

Cup O' Joe has reusable cups and dishes for customers who are "drinking in" at its eight central Ohio locations. And in the next few weeks, it will switch all of its paper carryout cups to a compostable "ecotainer" made by International Paper.

Starbucks cups aren't compostable, and the company doesn't offer free reusable cups. But it sells travel mugs and offers a 10-cent discount to customers who bring their own cups.

Customers in the United States and Canada took that offer more than 17 million times in 2006, saving 674,000 pounds of paper, said Starbucks spokeswoman Valerie Carlborg.

Starbucks said that a more-recyclable cup wasn't an option, but the cup manufacturer disagreed.

"It's all about the money; the question is whether they would be willing to pay for it," said Kelvin Okamoto, manager of materials and engineer at SOLO Cup Co., which is based in Illinois.

Making that change could double the cost of cups, he said, "which means consumers would likely have to pay more, too."

But a South Side recycler said it could take Starbucks cups "all day long" if people dropped them off.

"The majority of recyclers take the same products they did 30-40 years ago, instead of finding new places that will take other things, like these cups," said Steve Grossman, president of the Grossman Group Inc., which operates at 2500 Jackson Pike.

Rumpke said it hasn't searched for other recyclers to handle coffee cups because there hasn't been enough demand.

"If Starbucks set up a recycling system and could provide us with enough cups to fill a truck, then who knows?" said Sargent. "Not only could we do it, but maybe it would be profitable enough for us to even do it for free."