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Starbucks’ Grounds for Your Garden Program: How Green Is It Really?

image of Starbucks' Ground for Your Garden bagFor the past 15 years, Starbucks has been distributing its used coffee grounds free of charge through its stores. The stated goal of the Grounds for Your Garden program is to keep this rich organic material out of the landfill by enlisting its customers as foot soldiers in the war against waste. But what is the net impact of this offering really?

Have you ever looked at one of the bags used to distribute the grounds? You could make a space suit out of that stuff! The bags are made from thick, heavy plastic, and I mean heavy. Sure, Starbucks wants to protect its good Samaritans from leaks and stains from the wet, heavy grounds, but surely kitchen trash bag strength would be sufficient.

Is this really a positive environmental initiative? How long would it take for the 5-lbs. of coffee grounds contained in the bags to decompose? How long would it take for the thick, silver plastic bag holding those grounds to decompose? 1,000 years?

Distributing wet, highly compostable coffee grounds in thick plastic, noncompostable bags seems so overtly ridiculous, if not outright irresponsible, that I couldn’t help but think I was missing something. Maybe these bags were made from recycled rubber. Tires maybe. Maybe the bags were part of NASA’s space suit recycling program.

I decided to contact Starbucks to find out. Here was the response I received from its corporate social responsibility department:

At a typical Starbucks store, coffee grounds make up more than a third of the waste stream by weight. That’s why we introduced this program in North America in 1995. We offer complimentary five-pound (2.27-kilogram) bags of used coffee grounds to customers to use as a nutrient additive to their soil. The program has spread to a variety of locations including Chile, Greece, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Korea.

On a personal note, the customer service representative added:

It may be down to the local managers, but at the Starbucks I frequent, we bring the plastic bags back to the store for reuse.

I picked up my Grounds for Your Garden bag at a travel plaza on the Ohio Turnpike, so I doubt they get a lot of returns for recycling. So what I took from this is that Starbucks does not have a recycling policy for these bags; nor does it use recycled materials to create them. I would hate to conclude that Starbucks’ “green” program is nothing but greenwashing or worse since, unless I’m still missing something, the net impact on the environment is likely to be negative.  I mean, a corporation claiming to be doing something good for the environment wouldn’t really do that . . . right?

Here are three thoughts I have for Starbucks:

1. Use recycled material to make the bags. This way, even though they end up in a landfill eventually, at least they got reused first.

2. Use plastic grocery store bags to distribute the grounds. You might have to distribute the grounds in smaller volumes by weight to prevent breakage, but even so, Starbucks customers can take them back to the grocery store to be recycled after they dump the grounds.

3. Let people bring in their own bags and containers.

It’s not rocket science . . . . although the current Grounds for Your Garden bags might be.

Since writing this post, I have been told by several IE readers that the bags used to hold the grounds are the same bags in which the original coffee beans come. So the bags are simply being re-used on-site at the Starbucks locations. I was unable to find this information before writing the post.  I tried, but I could find nothing. Even Starbucks corporate was unable to tell me the source of the bags.

As bloggers, it’s our job to ask questions. We do our due diligence, but being wrong sometimes is a hazard of the job.  If you’re never willing to go out on a limb, you never really learn anything.

Even if the bags are re-filled with grounds on site, this still leaves a lot of questions. It’s great that the bags get re-used, but then they end up in the consumer stream where they will inevitably be landfilled and live forever or close to it. If Starbucks is really concerned about the environment, why aren’t they recycling these bags into more whole bean coffee bags? This would keep the bags out of the waste stream entirely. It would also reduce the need to manufacture new bags in the first place. Or could they be recycled into something else like they do with juice pouches that get turned into shopping bags? This would, of course, require Starbucks to find homes for the grounds on a store-by-store basis. Perhaps they don’t want to add this to the job responsibility of the local store managers. But why not? Or maybe they could let customers bring in their own containers for coffee grounds. “Bring your tub . . . we’ll fill it up!”

My point in this and other posts is that just because it looks environmentally responsible doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. Lots of things look good on the surface, but when you dig deeper, they’re more complicated. Those are the kinds of questions we need to be asking, and we have to be willing to ask them publicly, even if we risk being wrong.

— Heidi Tolliver-Nigro 2/7/2011

Written by Heidi Tolliver-Walker

Heidi Tolliver-Walker has been a commercial and digital printing industry analyst, feature writer, columnist, editor, and author for nearly 20 years. She is known for her meticulous research and no-nonsense perspective. In addition to having written thousands of industry articles for top industry publications, she and Richard Romano have been the face of the well-respected industry research firm The Industry Measure (TrendWatch Graphic Arts) for many years. In her more than 13-year tenure with the firm, she has written countless reports on digital printing, 1:1 (personalized) printing, Web-to-print, personalized URLs, and other hot industry applications. She is also a long-time contributing editor and columnist for Printing News, for which she writes two monthly columns, including "Personal Effects," which features monthly analysis of 1:1 (personalized) printing case studies. She is also the author of three titles for the National Association of Printing Leadership: Designer's Printing Companion, Ink & Color: A Printer's Guide, and Diversifying Via Value-Added Services. As a small, niche publisher (Strong Tower Publishing), she is active in utilizing these technologies in her own business, as well.

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