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What is Greenwashing?

Zero Waste Lifestyle

Last Updated on January 23, 2024

What is Greenwashing? Well, this week we got the perfect example handed to us on a silver platter. 

UPDATE 4/19/18! Spent a lot of time in thought. Please read this post, but also read my recent reflections: Is and Step in the Right Direction, Still a Step in the Right Direction?

Specifically, I’m talking about why the Starbucks “compostable” and “recyclable” cup campaign is bullshit. If you haven’t heard, Starbucks is investing $10 million dollars in making “compostable” and “recyclable” cups. 

You can see my response to Starbucks below. 


Did you hear? @starbucks is offering $10 million dollars to develop a coffee cup that is either compostable or recyclable…. I have officially invented the mug. It’s reusable. Washable. Closed loop. Please make the check out to Kathryn. ✌️ But, this is seriously laughable. Making it compostable or recyclable is a bandaid. The problem is that it’s still disposable. Let’s brainstorm some better ideas. What about making a larger incentive campaign for BYO? A deposit system on reusable cups? What else could a coffee shop implement? #goingzerowaste . #zerowaste #ecofriendly #eco #sustainable #sustainability #starbuckscoffee #ditchdisposables #coffeecup #simple #flashesofdelight #darlingweekend #diner #cupofcoffee #simplejoys #gogreen #byo #zerowastelifestyle

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I put both compostable and recyclable in quotes because a lot of dishes that claim compostability, like EcoWare, don’t actually breakdown even in an industrial facility.

Our recycling system is currently in crisis because China won’t take our plastic or paper anymore, and before China quit taking our plastic, plastic only had a 9% recycle rate. You can read more about recycle rates here

So, what is greenwashing? 

Greenwashing is when a company spends more money on making you think it’s being eco-friendly than actually being eco-friendly. 

Starbucks and the cups is a text book example. We’ve talked about greenwashing on the blog before. Here’s the old post. It has seven tips on how you can avoid green washing, and I’ve uploaded a YouTube video about it too. 

Just imagine in the video, that we replaced grocery store with Starbucks and plastic bags for to-go cups. 

IT’S THE SAME SCENARIO! It’s so text book it hurts. 

So, why is Starbucks campaign greenwashing? Let’s break it down.

1. fool me once: 

Did you know this is the third time Starbucks has been trying to revamp their cups? In 2008 they declared all of their cups would be fully recyclable by 2015. 

It didn’t happen. 

In 2016 they said they were going to amp up the recycled content in their cups, but they never got that far. 

Now, it’s 2018 and they’re back to the recyclable/compostable spiel. 

2. look at the surrounding circumstances:

Starbucks has been called out for it’s cups, straws, and splash sticks for years. Clearly it hasn’t made any sort of difference. So, why now? 

Why are they deciding to go after cups instead of lower hanging fruit like straws and splash sticks? 

I’ll tell you why. It’s because Seattle passed a law that containers have to be recyclable or compostable. 

Starbucks isn’t doing this because they care about the environment. If they cared, they would have made these changes the first time around. 

When you’re looking for greenwashing, you always have to look at the surrounding circumstances. If someone’s being forced kicking and screaming to do something good for the environment, they’re going to try and get away with doing the least they can while still adhering to the law. 

3. missing the point: 

The goal is to decrease the amount of resources we consume. The goal is to use fewer disposables, and this campaign is complete misdirection. 

By telling the consumer how good their “compostable” and “recyclable” cups are, they’re encouraging disposable culture. The consumer thinks they’re doing good by taking these cups. 

When in reality, the problem is with the waste upstream, and we don’t know if these will actually compost or be recyclable. 

Paper bags are much more energy intensive to make than plastic bags. If everyone switched to paper bags, there’d be more pollution, more trees cut down, and more resources consumed. 

We’re already consuming more resources than the earth can sustain each year. It’s called Earth Overshoot Day, and it marks when we’ve consumed all the resources the earth can sustainably produce for the coming year. Last year we hit it on August 2nd. 

We’re consuming 1.5 Earth’s worth of resources. It’s completely unsustainable. 

When trying to identify if you’ve been greenwashed, look at the big picture. Another example is paper plates. A paper plate company says paper plates are good for the environment because you can save water by not having to wash dishes!

What the paper plate company doesn’t tell you is that it takes 8 gallons of water to make one paper plate. You can run 2 loads of dishes through the dishwasher for 10 gallons of water. You tell me which on the more eco-friendly choice is? You just have to look at the big picture. 

4. where’s the compost going? 

So, let’s say Starbucks makes a recyclable or compostable cup. That’s great but we’re assuming that it’s going to actually be recycled or composted. 

How is that possible if there’s neither recycling or composting in the town the Starbucks is in? 

Most towns don’t have curbside compost as a requirement. I have talked to several Starbuck’s employees who landfill their recycling because it’s too contaminated or their city doesn’t offer it. You can see several speaking out in the comments of the Instagram post I attached earlier. 

What is the point of going for a recyclable or compostable cup, which is more resource and energy intensive, if it’s going to wind up in the landfill anyways!? 


Believe it or not, I’m a really positive person. I don’t love ripping on companies and calling people out. I just think there are better ways that Starbucks could spend $10 million dollars. 

And, I’m not against compostable cups. I don’t think disposable products are evil, but I don’t think we should rely on them. We should use them in times of emergency, not every day. 

  1. 10 cent charge for a disposable cup
  2. Bump the 10 cent discount for bringing your own cup to 50 cents
  3. Put up signs that say, “Get a discount for bringing your own!” 
  4. Have all baristas ask if the order is for here or to-go. All for here orders should be made and served in real mugs and food should be served on real plates. 
  5. Put up a sign that let’s everyone know about the real mugs and real plates. 
  6. Baristas should also make sure customers know about their BYO campaign and it’s a great opportunity to sell the reusable tumblers in the shop. 
  7. Get rid of splash sticks
  8. Start composting at all locations and set an example for the town
  9. Create a closed loop program where all the cups are reusable and cost $1. When you’re done with the cup you can return it for credit or you can return the cups at drop locations. The cups will be sanitized and be used again.  
  10. Use advertisements to make the reusables cool. All of the advertisements are focused on disposability. Why not make them with reusables? Make reusables more normal than the disposables. 

If you think of any more ideas I should add to the list let me know! If Starbucks were actually reading this post, what would you want to tell them? 

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  1. Great read. I love reading these types of post from you (and listening about it on your story). Do you think LEGO is greenwashing with their bioplastic campaign?

    1. I haven’t done that much research, but from what I’ve read… I think they’re really trying to move away from plastic which I think is admirable. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with compostable cups, I just don’t think it’s where they should focus right now. Lego has a really rich history and I think they play on the idea that people pass their legos down which is a very zero waste principle.

  2. Great read as always thank you. It’s strange because here in the UK in Starbucks (and all coffee chains) they always ask if you’re eating in or taking away, and if you’re eating in they always give you proper china mugs, plates etc, so I don’t see why they can’t do this in other countries including the US.

    1. I was in a Starbucks in Canary Wharf in London and I told the cashier I was eating in. She looked at me blankly and said they only did “cups”?? So I said ok and I was served a paper cup! I was shocked they didn’t have real mugs. When I went to throw away my cup, they had a “recycling” center for cups which seemed to indicate that they were recycling both the plastic topper and the cup itself. I don’t buy it.

  3. How about making the cups edible? Seriously, how good would a chocolate cup taste after it was filled with a caramel frappuccino?…

    I think encouraging regular cup use is fabulous as it all tastes better in real mugs anyway. As for to-go items how about building a tag into a reusable cup that can be scanned for a meaningful discount like $1? That would really encourage people to bring the cup with them.

  4. The vast majority of what goes on in the green economy is really just green washing. In fact, the vast majority of green washing is just virtue signalling for companies looking to score tax credits, deductibles, and direct subsidies. This is the entire reason for Tesla’s existence.

  5. Well said, couldn’t agree more!! Unfortunately, many people will fall for it BUT I think society are getting smarter. Imagine if we all just went back to using mugs and sat down to enjoy our coffee once in a while ?

    1. There was a really interesting video circulating about Italy and how they don’t do to-go cups culturally because there’s a joy in staying in and drinking your coffee.

  6. "Make reusables more normal than the disposables." This is such a simple thing that companies could do and would make such a difference.

  7. Peets has reusables for most of their items, you just have to ask, otherwise you get disposable. Just an FYI that there is a major coffee chain out there with this option.

  8. I just wanted to add that even though Starbucks had recycle, compost, and waste bins inside most stores. All the bags get thrown in the waste 🙁 I’m sure part of that is not being able to trust that your costumers properly sorted, but still that’s annoying!

  9. Don’t use Starbucks,Costa or any cafe chain. I love coffee shops and tea rooms run by people with commitment and soul who are happy to welcome you and actually give service with a SMILE