Starbucks’ decision to shift away from single-use cups won’t single-handedly solve climate change or end plastic pollution, but it could help spark a movement, challenging other food-service chains to take responsibility for their waste.

By the end of next year, the coffee titan intends to allow customers to use reusable cups for all cafe, drive-through and mobile orders in thousands of stores in the U.S. and Canada. It’s part of the company’s effort to reduce waste by 50% by 2030. Cups account for about 20% of the company’s waste footprint. Most of the estimated 7 billion disposable cups it generates worldwide each year are not recycled. Mobile and drive-through orders account for 70% of the company’s U.S. sales.  

The announcement came on the heels of a historic United Nations resolution to negotiate an international global plastic ban treaty by the end of 2024. It also comes at a critical time as the company sees a wave of employee unionization efforts and seeks to rebound from pandemic-era changes in consumer behavior, says University of Washington political science Professor Aseem Prakash.

But even if the move was at least partially prompted by an urge to further solidify Starbucks’ image as a progressive service-sector company, that doesn’t negate the good that will come of it. As Prakash, whose research interests include climate governance and voluntary regulation, said, “This is a conversation that is long overdue, because the world has never seen this kind of waste.”

“It is a drop in the bucket, but it’s also symbolic,” said Greenpeace USA Plastics Project Lead Kate Melges, noting recent reuse commitments from beverage giants Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo. Starbucks’ announcement could prompt a similar shift in the service sector.

Last year, Greenpeace challenged Starbucks to commit to eliminating disposable cups from their cafes worldwide by 2025 after the company announced it would phase out disposable cups at its Korean-based cafes. That pledge was prompted by a Korean government ban on disposable straws and cups, scheduled to take effect in 2027. The European Union ban on single-use plastics took effect last July.

U.S. politicians haven’t been willing to enact such sweeping changes. Here in deep-blue Washington, lawmakers have made some effort to stem the avalanche of waste, banning single-use plastic carryout bags and barring restaurants from automatically including single-use food service items like straws and plastic utensils with customer orders. But there’s no reason to wait for lawmakers to summon the courage to take bolder action. More service-industry companies should follow Starbucks’ lead and bring better practices home.