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Starbucks wasted water row ignites debate

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Starbucks wasted water row ignites debate
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The recent hefty criticism of Starbucks for allegedly wasting millions of gallons of water through a policy of leaving its taps running, has brought to light beverage-trade issues which the daily press would not have known about.

The issue arose when the Sun claimed thatthe coffee-bar chain wasted 1.63 million litres a day in Britain and 23.4 million litres worldwide – enough to provide water for an entire drought-stricken African country.

According to the paper, and all the other media who took the story up, the alleged wastage came to light after a customer complained to Starbucks after seeing taps being left running, and received a letter in reply saying that this was company policy.

Reporters from the Sun say that they have evidence of the policy in use in several British towns, New York, Los Angeles, Australia, China, Austria and Romania.

The paper says that the always-on policy is to provide constant water for a ‘dipper well’ sink used to wash utensils, and that Starbucks ‘claim a constant flow stops germs breeding in the taps’ – but it reports that staff never use this sink.  Environmental organisations are quoted as being shocked by the alleged wastage, and one said that the claim of doing so for health reasons was ‘bonkers’.

The Sun printed no reaction from the coffee chain, until it was able to claim in a later edition that its exposé had forced Starbucks to ‘turn the taps off’.   However, a fuller response from Starbucks has gone into some catering-trade issues, particularly the ‘dipper well’ practice which was causing the problem.

“The dipper well system currently in use in Starbucks retail stores ensures that we meet or exceed our own and local health standards,” said the company. “Dipper wells use a stream of continuous cold fresh-running water to rinse away food residue, help keep utensils clean and prevent bacterial growth.”

However, added Starbucks: “This technique is common and well-accepted in the industry.”

This was a remark that surprised many people in the beverage trade, and so Starbucks was quick to add that it is trying to find better ways of working: “Starbucks has tested alternative methods to the dipper well system. This includes the use of an ice bath and the elimination of spoons altogether – neither of these alternatives were successful. 

“Currently under consideration is a modified procedure that would eliminate dipper wells in favour of frequent use of our dishwashers to clean service utensils.  We are also designing a new water-saver spoon-rinse approach of greater efficiency.

“Other ways we are currently conserving water include installing high-pressure and temperature dishwashers to clean dishes quickly, installing aerating spray nozzles in our sinks that reduce water consumption, using rinsers with blasts of higher pressure water to clean pitchers instead of a long, constant stream from the tap, and re-programming espresso machines to dispense less water during each rinse cycle of the shot glasses.”  (This is a reference to Starbucks’ recent instruction that all espressos were to be pulled into shot glasses, and then decanted into cups).

By coincidence, on exactly the same day, the Envirowise organisation issued its recommendations that businesses should adopt ‘rainwater harvesting’, saying that this would  reduce dependency on mains water and would future-proof business against potential shortages and water price rises .

“Rainwater can be utilised in many ways from toilet flushing through to cooling water in manufacturing processes, particularly as the ‘soft’ nature of the water means there is reduced limescale deposits. The benefits of using rainwater have caught on in many sectors, from the hotel and leisure industry, through to nurseries, gardens and sports grounds, who are using collected rainwater to help meet water needs and reduce mains water consumption.”

Envirowise has recently published a water fact sheet that helps businesses discover if rainwater harvesting is suitable for their property. The fact sheet takes businesses through simple steps to help quantify the amount of water currently used, the maximum water that may be harvested in a year and the associated cost benefits.

The Reducing Mains Water Use through Rainwater Harvesting fact sheet is available for download from the Envirowise website >> Two reactions to the Starbucks story showed very different environmental attitudes from either side of the Atlantic.

On the Mail website, a reader from Texas said she could not understand what all the fuss was about, and ‘that only socialist countries force people to use less water.’

Rather more practically, the Coffee@ café chain of London was quick to respond that it already uses rainwater savings to operate the cisterns in its public toilets.  The system apparently took several years to put in place, but is reckoned to be well worth it.


By Ian Boughton

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