Starbucks Coffee

Putting Grounds in the Ground?

Starbucks sells more than 10 million cups of coffee worldwide every week, according to spokeswoman Helen Chung. That much coffee leaves an awful lot of grounds to dispose of, and so it was heartening to learn that the manager of a Starbucks in Freehold, New Jersey was, at least for a few months, collecting the grounds in biodegradable garbage liners and having the residue trucked to the local composting facility.

Why Freehold? Chung explained that the initiative came from the manager, not from Starbucks' head office in Seattle. “We have Green Team members throughout our stores,” she says. “They are store partners [employees] who volunteer to work on environmental projects.” It's up to the individual stores to choose a project, she adds.

But in this case, there seems to have been a lack of communication between Freehold and Seattle. “We were unaware of them doing it. The manager elected to, and she no longer works for the company,” says Ben Packard, Starbucks manager for environmental affairs. “It was not a pilot program, for us to adopt this system-wide.”

Since the Freehold experiment was abandoned earlier this year, no Starbucks stores use biodegradable garbage liners to recycle coffee grounds. Although Starbucks recycles some solid waste, says Packard, the availability and regulation of facilities for composting varies widely between municipalities. “It's tough for one store,” says another Starbucks spokesman, Alan Hilowitz. You can't order enough [liners] to make it economical,” Mike Manna, East Coast sales manager for Biocorp, maker of the Freehold liners, admitted that a company making the switch to biodegradable will find its liner bills rising two to three times. And he agreed with Packard that the infrastructure is not yet in place everywhere. “You need a compost facility nearby to make it cost-effective,” he says.

So, despite the fleeting efforts of one store, organic waste composting is still not a priority for Starbucks, says Packard. “The bigger opportunity is for our customers to compost coffee grounds themselves.” In a few areas, where word has gotten around that gardens love the nitrogen-rich grounds, “there's a backlog of people wanting them,” he says.

But for environmentalists, if the bulk of the organic waste stream is going to a landfill, that's a wasted opportunity.