When Starbucks announced they would stop offering straws in all 28,000 locations by 2020 they probably expected a lot of praise. But they also announced that this would mean adopting a lid design that includes a built-in nozzle for drinking. Although that lid has been in limited use for a couple of years, the internet did not take long to respond negatively. Derisively dubbed “sippy cups” after infant plastic drinking cups they arguably resemble. On Twitter, the #Strawgate hashtag quickly emerged as a worldwide trending hashtag with most criticizing the design.
But whatever the response, Starbucks and many other companies are moving forward to a world without straws. In Starbucks case alone, the move will reportedly keep one billion plastic straws a year out of landfills and the oceans.
Beverage industry guru William Sipper wrote on his popular industry blog this week that the soft drink industry is watching closely and knows that consumers expect brands to move away from plastic packaging to sustainable alternatives. Plastic bottles are a significant contributor to total plastic waste, and worldwide, governments and companies are looking for solutions.
Sipper, who is a principal at Cascadia Managing Brands, a global soft drink industry consulting firm, says that while the plastic bottles that are the standard in the soft drinks industry are recyclable, most of them do not go into the recycling process but end up as litter or in landfills.
The sheer volume of them is one problem but so is the convenience of soft drinks which are commonly drunk on-the-go. In fact, soft drink bottles have become a kind of symbol of the growing problem of trash in the oceans. As a result, two-thirds of consumers consider plastic bottles an environmental hazard.
The industry is experimenting with a range of environmentally friendly solutions. Coca-Cola has invested heavily in its “plant” bottles which are more environmentally friendly plastics than traditional PET bottles because they include plant materials in them. The plant materials used in the bottles replace petroleum-based ingredients which the company claims will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Coke says they currently use 6 billion of the bottles annually. The company reports that their PlantBottle packaging already accounts for 30 percent of their North American packaging volume and 7 percent globally.
Others are pushing reusable containers, which industry leaders like William Sipper say are a harder sell in the convenience-oriented carbonated soft drink segments than in, say bottled water. In any case, Sipper says disposable packaging will never go away completely.
Ooho got a lot of attention for demonstrating edible, flexible packaging which contains a single serving of water. The Ooho serving resembles a bubble and pops in your mouth.
It is unclear if consumers will adopt such novel choices. Two-thirds of global consumers of bottled water prefer plastic bottles when on the go. Plastic packaging is also a leading format in the carbonated and juice categories, followed by glass bottles.
Aluminum cans and beverage cartons have environmental benefits but are unpopular, especially when it comes to packaged water. Among other things, these options do not allow for effective resealing of an opened container.
William Sipper says that one unexpected beneficiary of this is likely to be glass containers. Glass is easily recyclable and can often be reused. Consumers believe drinks in glass containers do not pick up unpleasant flavors which they believe happens with aluminum or many plastics.
Sipper says the global soft drink industry still does not have a solution for the problem of sustainable soft drink packaging.