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Check Out Line: Bring a mug, get free Starbucks java, save the world

April 15, 2010

mugsCheck out how Starbucks is working to persuade you to help save the planet by using fewer of its iconic paper cups.

On Thursday the company, which hands out about 4.75 million cups a day, is giving away free coffee to everyone who brings in a reusable mug or travel tumbler.

This latest promotion from the world’s biggest coffee chain comes as it works to hit its goal of serving one-fourth of its beverages in reusable cups by 2015.

The ubiquity of Starbucks coffee cups make them a powerful advertising vehicle. But the company’s popularity also has a dark side — discarded Starbucks cups contribute to pollution by creating tons of trash.

“Changing a habit is hard,” Cliff Burrows, president of Starbucks’ U.S. business, told Reuters at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in Southern California this week. “We can’t incentivize it more than free.”

Ben Packard, Starbucks’ vice president of global responsibility, said the company is taking a page from the grocery industry’s sustainability playbook.

“We want to do for the coffee cup what happened with the grocery bag,” Packard said, referring to the supermarkets industry success convincing many consumers to bring in their own shopping bags, rather than taking a new plastic bag with each visit.

Starbucks since 1985 has given 10 cents back to customers who use their own mugs. Executives said they give that discount on 1.5 percent of visits, which works out to about 26 million times a year, and they’re hoping the latest promotion will boost those numbers and help further reduce waste.

“If we can encourage that kind of switch behavior, we can have a significant impact,” Packard said.

Starbucks isn’t just working to reduce paper cup use, it also has a goal of making its paper and plastic cups recyclable by 2012.

As it continues to look for ways to make its cups easier to recycle, the company is teaming with government officials, waste haulers and recycling companies in places like Seattle and San Francisco to keep cups out of landfills.

Packard said much work remains to be done since recycling capabilities vary widely in any given area.

“The complexity of this cannot be overstated … In Seattle, on one side of the bridge you can recycle the cup, on the other you can’t,” said Packard, who added that San Francisco has the ability to compost Starbucks cups.

The one-day offer comes a week before Earth Day and on April 15, perhaps making Tax Day easier to swallow.

Also in the basket:

Wal-Mart again tops Fortune 500

Barney’s looking for a CEO

Danone withdraws health claims, cautious on FY

(Reuters photo)

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