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Using a reusable cup has become a trend among the environmentally conscious, and Starbucks was quick to hop on the trend in the early 2010s, marketing their reusable cups as both a way to help the planet and as a branded accessory for Starbucks fanatics. But with the multitude of cheaper options on the market, its tumblers haven’t achieved mass appeal among consumers.
Are Starbucks Reusable cups worth it? Although past versions of Starbucks-branded tumblers may have cost more than they were worth, buying from the latest line-up of reusable cups is a stylish, environmentally-friendly way to save money, but there are still pros and cons to consider.
Starbucks has shown a long-term commitment to the idea of increasing the number of its customers bringing reusable cups and tumblers into its stores, but the company hasn’t been as successful as its historical benchmarks predicted. Keep reading to find out where Starbucks’ strategy has fallen short and why now might be when it finally succeeds.
Starbucks’ Waste Reduction Strategy over the Years
Starbucks has long promoted and marketed its commitment to environmentally-friendly practices, including serving its beverages in “a cup with 10% post-consumer recycled paper fiber since 2006” and, later, encouraging the use of reusable cups.
Later, the company latched onto the idea of encouraging its customers to bring in reusable tumblers
Previously, the company set a benchmark goal to have 5% of Starbucks beverages sold in-store to be served in customer-owned tumblers by 2015. This was an amendment to a previous goal from 2008 to see reusable tumblers used in 25% of in-store beverage sales by 2015.
According to Starbucks, in 2011, less than 2% of in-store beverage sales in Starbucks were served using reusable tumblers, an increase of less than half a percentage point in the previous two years. However small that percentage may have been, in 2011, it meant that over 34 million fewer Starbucks cups ended up in the trash.
The $1 Reusable Cup
The growth of Starbucks consumer usage of reusable cups has continued to be markedly slow, dropping to 1.5% and then reaching 1.8% in 2012 and 2013, respectively. In 2013, Starbucks also launched a reusable cup priced at $1 in an attempt to encourage higher in-store usage among its customers.
The $1 reusable Starbucks cup, which looked exactly like its paper counterpart, gained Starbucks customers the same 10-cent discount as normal tumblers with each beverage purchased/served. This meant the cost would be made up for within 10 purchases.
With Starbucks consumers averaging 6 visits per month, and the most loyal 20% going 16 times per most, purchasing this affordable version of Starbucks’ reusable cups would seem like a no-brainer, but it didn’t take off like Starbucks (and many media outlets at the time) expected. In fact, as the company continued to expand over the years, the usage rate of reusable mugs dropped back down to 1.3% by 2018, bringing the number of cups saved to 42 million that year.
After a trial run in the Pacific Northwest, Starbucks took the $1 reusable cup to all locations in U.S. and Canada, but the low discount and customers forgetting to grab their cup on the way to Starbucks proved to be barriers to the success of this initiative. Despite pushing the rate of reusable cup usage up to 26% in the 600 stores initially tested in the Pacific Northwest, national usage in the U.S. remained quite low across the board.
Additionally, the fact that these cheaper cups were advertised to only last for 30 uses was likely a deterrent to two camps of potentially interested customers: 1) those who were invested in the money-saving aspect and 2) those who cared more about the environmentally-friendly waste reduction.
Starbucks New Line-Up of Reusable Cups
To implement a more successful strategy to increase in-store adoption of reusable tumblers and cups, Starbucks needed to maximize both affordability/cost-effectiveness while capitalizing on brand recognition and style to encourage customer interest. As a result of their past stumbles in this area, Starbucks recently announced a host of new, affordable reusable cups that don’t skip on style.
The company has retained its commitment to reducing its 1% share of the “estimated 600 billion paper and plastic cups [that] are distributed globally” every year,” but the new-line up of reusable cups shows that those heading the design of these products have realized that form and function both need to be prioritized.
As we go through the Starbucks’ latest additions to its array of branded reusable tumblers and cups, we’ll discuss the following factors to help you assess the pros and cons of purchasing a Starbucks reusable cup and ultimately decide whether buying one is worth it for you:
- Cost compared to competitors
- Material, durability, and care
- Appearance and originality
- Long-term environmental impact
- Other options for reusable cups
Overall, purchasing a Starbucks reusable cup has never been more worth it than it is today, as the company has dramatically expanded its product line, but it’s important to recognize that not everyone’s needs, budget, style, and coffee and/or tea habits make buying one the right choice.
As we progress through each of the factors that will inform your decision, we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of Starbucks reusable cups for each factor and discuss if there are other options on the market that might better suit your priorities.
The original $1 reusable cup was fairly utilitarian and plain in comparison to previous reusable cups and tumblers the company has sold, but Starbucks appears to be recognizing that its customers need more than just “cheap” and “reusable” cups as an incentive to buy into their waste reduction strategy and goals.
The latest releases from the company, which have only been distributed for sale in a few stores, include an array of “jewel-tone and confetti-flecked plastic cups that transform hues when a cold beverage is poured inside.”
These new, eye-catching additions to the Starbucks reusable cup line-up are set to launch at the tail-end of May, and they’re already creating a lot of buzz surrounding their release. If you’re interested in getting the Starbucks-branded look but weren’t drawn to previous editions, this color-changing update may the design that draws your eye.
However, when it comes to brightly colored and dynamically designed reusable cups, there are plenty of competitors on the market, including color-changing options. To choose between these options, you’ll need to consider additional factors like cost, environmental impact, convenience, and more.
Starbucks has also recently introduced a series of iridescent tumblers to a few of its U.S. locations, which were spotted by customers and announced by a handful of influencers online in April and May 2020 and not yet officially announced by the company itself. As a result of the limited release, not much information is available about the cost, but the appearance alone is getting some Starbucks customers excited regardless.
Although other brands and companies have released iridescent tumblers in the past, based on the ones available on platforms like Amazon and Etsy, among others, seem to indicate that these new Starbucks tumblers are rather unique, aesthetically speaking, which might be why some people are already trying to resell these relatively unknown products online for as much as $50.
As attractive as these new options are, you may not be looking for a cold-beverage tumbler and prefer something that can carry your hot coffee or tea on your way to work or school. You might think that Starbucks’ latest releases may not have much to offer you, as they’re marketing has largely focused as summer releases but Starbucks still has hot cup options for its customers.
In the company’s “Summer Series,” the variety of mugs and tumblers on sale follow a tropical theme, using pastel purple, shades of blue, and hot pink throughout the product line’s color scheme as well as imagery of palm trees and leaves throughout.
The Summer Series mainly feature cold beverage tumblers, but it also offers stainless steel water bottle, summer-themed mugs, and three tumblers that can be used for hot beverages, two of which are stainless steel, leak-proof models.
If you’re primarily interested in a hot-beverage reusable tumbler, this limited selection might not be for you, whether in terms of shape, size, or style, not to mention other factors that should go into your purchasing process.
If the appearance and selection of Starbucks’ most recent releases aren’t enough to help you decide if purchasing one of the new Starbucks reusable cups is worth it for you, you’ll need to examine other factors, including cost and durability, to further weigh the pros and cons.
Over the years, the cost to own a Starbucks reusable cup or tumbler has gone down significantly. While in the past, the cheapest branded options from the company cost as much as $20 or more, nowadays Starbucks reusable cups are significantly lower.
Several of the latest releases cost as little as $3, and Starbucks sells their reusable cups and tumblers in a variety of retail spaces, including through Amazon and in Starbucks locations in Target and Barnes and Noble stores, making it easy to get access to the variety of styles offered by the company.
If cost is your primary motivation when it comes to choosing a reusable cup, tumbler, or mug, choosing between Starbucks-branded products and those from other companies will likely depend on what type of reusable cup you want.
Starbucks’ $3 cold-drink tumblers are hard to beat in terms of price, but their hot-beverage reusable tumblers and mugs tend to cost quite a bit more, especially if you’re looking for ones that promise to be leak-proof or insulated travel mugs that will keep your hot drinks warm for a longer.
Overall, when it comes to the most reputed and well-rated travel mugs for hot beverages, Starbucks’ products often don’t make the list, especially since many of the company’s competitors in this arena focus almost exclusively on these types of products and have established name-brand recognition among its consumer base, making the often over $30 price tag well worth it in customers’ minds.
However, Starbucks has also recently developed cheaper hot-beverage products as long as you’re satisfied with a simpler product. For example, for their holiday releases in November 2019, Starbucks released a 6-pack set of reusable hot cups in a stylish red and pink ombre collection. The total price for the set was just under $12, which equals about $2 per cup, even cheaper than the latest cold-cup tumbler releases.
Material, Durability, and Care
Since the lack of success of its $1 reusable cups, Starbucks has seemed to realize that a reusable cup that required multiple purchases simply wasn’t going to appeal to its consumers on a mass-scale, and out of all of the company’s recent releases, none of its newest products have come with the same 30-use warning that was originally announced with the original $1 cup.
Even the $3 reusable cups are apparently meant to last much longer than previous versions, lasting some customers as much as a year and counting. Additionally, all Starbucks reusable cups are made with BPA-free plastics, which makes them safe to serve and store hot-beverage for long-term use.
Another consideration to keep in mind is the care and maintenance of different versions of Starbucks reusable cups. Although the plastics these products are made from are BPA-free, some of their tumblers are not microwave-safe and/or dishwasher safe, which is easy to forget and means you risk damaging them early into their use.
For some interested in Starbucks reusable cup products, the primary motivation isn’t the potential to save 10-cents per purchase or have a stylish accessory but rather to do their part in reducing global paper and plastic waste. If that’s the case for you, you’ll likely want to know more about the potential environmental impact of this decision.
Just as Starbucks has long studied ways to decrease the environmental impact of its business practices, the food and beverage industry as a whole has put countless dollars and hours into researching the problem that Starbuck’s Waste Reduction Program has attempted to solve. How can we make our eating and drinking habits less harmful to the environment long-term?
The Debate over Reusable Mugs
When reading the previously mentioned fact that Starbucks contributes about 1% of the over 600 billion disposable cups used worldwide (which equals about 6 billion cups), the idea of encouraging the adoption of reusable mugs might seem like an obvious solution to the problem. However, among environmental activists and advocates, the efficacy of these reusables is a debated topic.
Based on the figure that the average Starbucks customer visits one of its locations 6 times per month, in a year alone, one customer could potentially throw away 72 disposable cups. And although the material used to make those cups is partially recycled, the interior has a plastic lining that still contributes to the accumulation of plastic in landfills worldwide.
These facts seem to support even more than reusable cups are the answer, but the biggest detriment to their adoption in Starbucks and other chains and independent coffee shops is the inconvenience to consumers.
Many detractors to the use of the common plastic reusable tumbler, mug, or cup believe that they actually contribute to more waste than they prevent. Generally, these reusable cups are thicker and therefore made of more plastic material that the cups they replace.
Often, people who own these mugs end up forgetting to use them or ultimately throw them away, only to replace them with another reusable mug the next time they resolve to kick the disposable cup habit.
Environmentally Friendlier Alternatives to Starbucks Reusable Cups
If you’re committed to adopting more environmentally friendly habits and are confident that purchasing a Starbucks reusable up will help you reduce your use of disposable cups, such a purchase can be a simple, effective way to reach that goal, but other options might better suit your goals and lifestyle.
In some communities, including on the Western Washington University campus in Bellingham, Washington, coffee shops have instituted “mug-sharing” programs, which allow customers to leave with a reusable mug that they can return to any other participating coffee shop at their convenience.
Other places using these programs include the University of Northern British Columbia, Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and startup company Good to Go in New York City, as well as a handful of coffee shops in Boulder, Colorado. If you live in an area that has a mug-sharing program, participating can be a convenient and low-cost way for you to make your coffee habit eco-friendlier.
There are also many plastic travel mugs and reusable cups that are specifically designed and engineered to be easy to recycle. A common criticism of Starbucks’ waste-reduction efforts is that both their paper and reusable cups aren’t often recycled in the many cities where the company operates.
In contrast, products like Stanley’s Recycled and Recyclable Mug and certain camp mugs from REI not only help you use fewer disposable cups, but they are also made from recycled material that is optimized for future recycling. Other products like the Thermos Sipp Travel Tumbler and hand-made mugs from independent shops in Etsy offer travel mugs that minimize the amount of plastic used (keeping it to just the lid) and using primarily stainless steel and ceramic material, respectively.
As previously discussed, convenience is a big factor in why many coffee/café companies’ efforts to encourage reusable cup usage have faltered over the years. Research studies have revealed that this lack of success might be owed to the way companies like Starbucks set up its incentives for customers bringing in reusable mugs.
Starbucks’ 10-cent discount for using a reusable mug (no matter the brand) has become somewhat of an industry standard, but studies of the University of Washington’s 25-cent discount and Seattle, Washington’s 2-cent discount managed to bolster adoptions rates of 12 percent and 13 percent each, around 9 to 10 times the usage rate among Starbucks customers in 2018.
Despite this relatively high success rate, the overwhelming majority of consumers still seem to find the inconvenience of carrying around their reusable cups all day not worth even a 25-cent discount. So, if you’re someone who’d like to take advantage of the discounts and do your part environmentally speaking, but you’re easily dissuaded by the annoyance of lugging around a cup, you’re certainly not alone in that sentiment.
Among Starbucks’ offerings, none of its reusable tumblers, mugs, or cups truly tackle this problem. One compromise that you might settle on would be to keep a clean tumbler in your car and use it every time you go through a Starbuck drive-through, as that might help you consistently bring a reusable cup for at least a portion of your Starbucks purchases.
On the other hand, this solution won’t allow you to get the most use out of your reusable cup and isn’t feasible for people who 1) don’t have a car or don’t drive, 2) don’t live near a Starbucks with a drive-through, or 3) tend to purchase drinks from Starbucks when they have multiple places to go where they plan to bring their drink.
A More Convenient Reusable Cup
In the face of the inconvenience of carrying around reusable cups, one startup company decided to tackle the issue with an innovative solution: Stojo. The brand, which launched on Kickstarter in 2014 and later expanded its initial investment crowd-funding to Indiegogo, promised a revolutionary product that got a lot of environmentally-conscious but practical coffee lovers excited.
The Stojo reusable cups have a collapsible design that allows them to squish down into a much more manageable disc shape, that can easily fit into a purse, backpack, and possibly a generous pocket. The cups, sold on both the Stojo website and on Amazon, come in three sizes:
- 8 oz. ($15), currently in 3 colors
- 12 oz. ($15), currently in 28 colors
- 16 oz. ($20), currently in 22 colors
- 24 oz. ($25), currently in 9 colors
The company’s marketing makes a lot of appealing promises for its products, including that the cups are:
- Dishwasher safe
- Microwave safe
- Made from recycled material
- Suited for both cold and hot beverages
- Sturdy when expanded and filled
In addition to its range of cold and hot-beverage cups, Stojo recently started selling collapsible water bottles, and although they don’t become quite as slim in profile as the reusable cups, these $25 bottles do collapse in a more manageable storage size and they come in an array of 16 different colors. If convenience is your biggest priority for a reusable cup, Stojo’s mugs are an affordable option with an appealing minimalistic style.
Since Stojo’s launch in 2014, many other companies have mimicked the company’s patented design, and you can find a wealth of collapsible travel mugs from its competitors, particularly on Amazon.
While none of these options will have the branded look of Starbucks’ reusable mugs, if convenience and cost matter more for your buying decisions, a Stojo-knockoff might be the way to go. Just make sure to check out the reviews, as not all of the collapsible mugs have as high-quality a designed as the well-reviewed Stojo cups.
Other Options for Reusable Cups
Beyond just the Stojo mugs, there is a variety of reusable cold and hot-beverage cups, tumblers, and mugs that have developed devoted customer bases and make for strong competition with even the best of Starbucks’ latest releases.
To round out this overview of whether Starbucks’ reusable cups are worth it, we’ll take a look at the highest-rated reusable cups, along with a summary of why you might want to consider these options over Starbucks’ products. Although the latest releases from the company are far-and-away some of their best reusable cups to date, price, and appearance.
Here are 7 of the top-recommended reusable travel mugs, tumblers, and cups and why buyers love them:
- The KeepCup
- Best for Style and Minimal Plastic
- $25 on Amazon
- Copco Acadia Travel Mug
- Best Value for Hot and Cold Cup
- $9 on Amazon
- The Miir Insulated Camp Cup
- Best for Quality and Durability
- $25 on Amazon
- The Kinto Travel Tumbler
- Best Travel-Friendly Design
- $30 on Amazon
- JOCO Glass Reusable Coffee Cup
- Best for Stylishly Supporting the Environment
- $25 on Amazon
- Frank Green travel mugs
- Best for Plastic-Free, Minimalist Style
- $35 on Verishop
- Hydro Flask Coffee Flask
- Best for Leak-Proof Insulation
- $50 on Amazon
Whatever style, material, price, or size of reusable cup appeals to you, make sure that you’re choosing one that will fit your lifestyle, budget, and needs so that you don’t end up with a product that you forget to or can’t fully use.
Whether the ultimate product you choose comes from Starbucks’ own line or from one of the numerous options listed here, as long as your properly line up your habits and priorities with the right product, you’ll end up with a reusable cup that can cut down on your carbon footprint and make your coffee habit just a little more affordable in the long-run.