In the world of quick coffee, Starbucks and McDonald’s are as fierce as competitors come. They’re multibillion-dollar global giants, fighting for our caffeinated hearts through drizzles and discounts.
The news comes on the heels of a food industry charge to reduce plastic in packaging, and straws in particular, by Chipotle, Subway, and Burger King, too. Starbucks itself just announced a new lid to replace straws in many drinks as part of a 2020 initiative to ban straws altogether. Together, McDonald’s and Starbucks distribute a combined 4% of the world’s 600 billion cups annually, and represent two of the top three most popular food chains worldwide. Each company’s cups are technically recyclable, but, for all sorts of practical matters related to recycling infrastructure, they rarely are.
McDonald’s and Starbucks plan to leverage their combined scale to change the way all single-use cups are made and disposed of. It’s a plan of unprecedented scale in the fast-food industry to improve its ecological footprint. “We’ve been at this for a while [alone], but we were getting tired of incrementality,” says Colleen Chapman, vice president of Starbucks’s global social impact overseeing sustainability.
The initiative is called the NextGen Cup Challenge, and it invites entrepreneurs, large and small, to develop materials and designs that can replace today’s cups. The challenge will provide grants to good ideas, and help startups work together to combine them into market-ready solutions. It was launched by Starbucks earlier this year with the earth-friendly innovation and investment firm Closed Loop Partners. Now, McDonald’s is joining the initiative.
For all the global good at stake, it may seem strange that two mega competitors are teaming up to codevelop and co-fund a better cup, rather than keeping that sort of innovation proprietary. McDonald’s says that most chains are making cups out of the same fibers and plastics already. Packaging may provide a competitive advantage, but the materials within the packaging do not. And McDonald’s even insists that the potential financial savings won’t be that significant in the best of circumstances, because the materials aren’t being optimized for cost, but for impact.