More and more customer recycling bins are popping up in Starbucks around Los Angeles. That's the good news. The downside is that this may not be making much of a difference in the stream of coffee cups that end up in landfills. For starters, some of the local recycling bins still can't accept the hot coffee cups and lids.

Starbucks has set a goal to have front-of-store recycling in all company-owned locations by 2015. On its website, the company reports that as of 2012, “Twenty-four percent of our company-owned stores in the United States and Canada offered front-of-store recycling. Of these locations, 94 percent were able to recycle or compost the hot cup.”

No matter how recyclable the cups eventually become, an ongoing issue is that most drinks purchased at Starbucks go out the door with the customer. Chances are, when the beverage is finished, it ends up in a garbage can — not a recycling container.

Starbucks recycling bin; Credit: E. Dwass

Starbucks recycling bin; Credit: E. Dwass

We wondered if one solution might be found in biodegradable coffee cups. We asked Starbucks if the company is researching this option and a representative said in an email: “Yes, we're always looking at innovative new materials that can meet our quality, price and performance standards.”

Cups aren't the only challenge. Customer confusion over what can be recycled in the store bins (napkins? straws?) may undermine the entire endeavor. As Starbucks notes on its website page about reducing waste: “A few nonrecyclable items in a recycle bin can render the entire bag unrecyclable to the hauler.”

When we talked with Starbucks last year, we learned that a lot of communities aren't equipped to recycle any to-go hot drink cups, because of the waxy lining that keeps the liquid from soaking through. Starbucks has been working with paper mills to try to solve this problem. The company has held “cup summits” to explore solutions and encourages customers to bring in their own cups from home. Customers who plan to drink their beverage in the store can request that it be served in a ceramic mug.

See also: 10 Best Coffee Shops in Los Angeles

In January, the company introduced a new reusable $1 cup. Like all customer personal tumblers, bringing it in gets you 10 cents off the cost of your drink. A representative emailed: “The cup is made of polypropylene (#5) plastic, just like our cold cups, cold lids and straws; it's a durable, low-cost option that can be recycled when it wears out, wherever #5 plastic recycling is available. It's also dishwasher-safe.”

In theory these cups should have a positive environmental impact. But maybe not: Writing about plastic food containers, advocacy group the Natural Resources Defense Council reminds us that the manufacturing process for plastics creates toxic emissions. In addition, the NRDC says that most plastics are made of petroleum, “a nonrenewable resource that requires new fossil reserves to be extracted continuously.”

In coffee news brewing elsewhere, Bloomberg recently reported that McDonald's is switching from polystyrene foam coffee cups to paper ones. In the article, a McDonald's rep said the change will be a “multiyear” process.

We were curious if the new paper cups will be recyclable and if the fast food giant will be adding recycling bins to stores. We contacted McDonald's by phone and email but did not receive answers to our questions. We also queried Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf about its recycling programs but did not get a response. We'll let you know if any new information percolates.

Editor's note: And if any coffee company people with news on this subject are reading this piece, you know where to find us.

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