Starbucks test of reusable cups, the latest example of drink companies seeking to cut waste, is probably expensive and of limited help to the environment. In fact, the biggest benefit at this point may be to the company’s image, in part because sustainable packaging is popular with consumers.

Starbucks’s Reusable Cup Program, established at London’s Gatwick Airport, gives customers the option to pay six cents extra for a reusable cup, which can be returned at one of the “Cup Check-In” collection sites posted throughout the airport. Starbucks hopes to reuse 7,000 of the cups, which are washed, sterilized, and reused at the airport, each month.

Drinks companies are awash in green initiatives, and they show no sign of reining them in. PepsiCo is replacing Aquafina bottles with aluminum cans to reduce plastics in the ocean, and Coca-Cola’s Australian bottler will make containers with100% recycled packaging in Australia by the end of this year.

  •  A recent NYU Stern Business School study showed that 50% of the growth in consumer-packaged goods came from sustainability-marketed products from 2013 to 2018. 
  • “Going green is expensive. Pepsi’s aluminum bottles are a good idea, but they are four times as expensive as plastic,” John Trovato, national recycling director at Northstar Recycling, who has worked with Starbucks on recycling initiatives, told Karma.
  • “Reusable plastic is not a new concept that Starbucks is adopting either, but I don’t think it’ll make a huge dent in the amount of plastic that is generated.” Still, the effort deserves credit, he said. “This is really good stuff that these companies are doing.”
  • In 2009, Starbucks planned to have all of their cups recyclable by 2012. “Starbucks didn’t slack on this goal, they just hit a brick wall,” Trovato says. “There aren’t that many options to go fully reusable.”
  • Karma Take: While coffee drinkers might get a boost by spending 6 cents to recycle a cup, Starbucks’s initiative highlights the costs and challenges faced by companies as they try to change behavior.