Elena Scotti/FUSION

Starbucks serves billions of drinks every year in disposable paper cups. A new sparse holiday design on those cups—meant to create a welcoming tone—has done anything but as Christian evangelists and other religious conservatives have declared the lack of festive ornamentation to be a "war on Christmas."  Even Donald Trump got in on the fun, which has evolved into a sort of annual cultural phenomenon.

While the design of the cups is eliciting animated debate, the bigger story is the cups themselves—the vast majority of the company's four billion or so hot drink cups produced each year do not get recycled.

Starbucks has made efforts to catalyze recycling for more than a decade as customers have demanded it. Much progress has been made, especially in comparison to other major fast food outlets serving coffee. But the path has been been far from straightforward, according to Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president with As You Sow, a non-profit corporate social responsibility organization.

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"There's all these bumps in the road because they are the first ones to do it," he told Fusion. "McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts aren't doing a damn thing about cup recycling."

In 2008, Starbucks pledged to recycle all plastic and paper cups disposed of in company-owned stores in the United States and Canada by 2012, a deadline they later moved to 2015. However, a 2013 company report acknowledged that recycling bins were installed in around 40% of North American stores, of which there are around 7,000. Of these locations, 71% were able to recycle or compost the hot cup.

MacKerron told Fusion "it's kind of a good news, bad news situation" for Starbucks when it comes to recycling. He said their setbacks shouldn't detract from the fact that they are the only fast food-type restaurant committed to recycling all their cups.

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While Starbucks's employees were recently documented throwing recyclables into trash destined for landfills—on purpose or by accident is unclear according to MacKerron—as well as failing to offer patrons reusable options, the issues with making a real dent in the trash created by hot drink cups run much deeper. Starbucks has had trouble meeting its recycling benchmarks in part due to societal and economic limitations, such as the cost and availability of recycling options.

Accoroding to MacKerron the company recently cited lack of demand for used cups by the recycling industry as well as a lack of infrastructure to handle collection, hauling and processing, as primary issues relating to its lack of overall progress.

The 2013 Starbucks report also says that "since most of our customers take their beverages to go, recyclability of our cups and other packaging is highly dependent on local government policies that promote or mandate recycling."

Looking for new ideas, and recycling some old ones

MacKerron said that the very thin plastic coating on the inside of the cups makes them more expensive to recycle. On top of that, many of the stores don't have easy access to paper recycling plants.

"Starbucks has maybe found that they need to pay more than they'd like, or that there's no place to recycle the cups," said MacKerron, who gave Starbucks credit for not wanting to recycle the cups when there wasn't an actual market for the resulting product.

"They're not just going to put bins out there and toss it into the recycling stream," he said. "They can collect all day long, but if it's not going to get recycled that’s not authentic."

Another option is to use fewer recyclable cups.

Starbucks made a commitment to serve 25% of its beverages in reusable mugs or tumblers by 2015—a target it hoped to reach by offering a $0.10 discount to those bringing to-go cups as well as promoting mugs and glasses for those hanging around. The company slashed this goal to 5% in 2011 and the 2013 data show that under 2% of beverages, some 47 million drinks, were served in reusable cups that year. The target for 2015 is 5%.

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Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council told Fusion that most "curbside recycling programs in the U.S. still don’t accept paper cups."

She said that the challenge to recycling these cups lies in the plastic coating that must be separated from the fibers during any recycling process. One solution might be switching to a "biobased compostable lining," however the current limitations of the composting industry might made it actually harder to compost the massive quantity of Starbucks's paper cups.

MacKerron said that recycling is actually preferable to composting because it keeps the materials in use longer and composting can also release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

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Hoover said that it would be helpful if Starbucks continued efforts to increase the recycled fiber content in their cups, thus closing the "recycling loop" and ensuring there is a market for fiber. According to a recent NRDC/As You Sow report, “Waste and Opportunity 2015," Starbucks uses 10% recycled materials in its coffee cups. The report found that Starbucks is an industry leader in sustainable packaging.

Hoover also thinks Starbucks could redouble efforts to promote recycling by customers.

"The company has also historically encouraged consumers to bring their own reusable cups, which is a great way to reduce environmental impacts related to cups," she said. "Anecdotally, though, some consumers are reporting that the promotion of that initiative is less prominent than it used to be."

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One potential solution to the problem—that Americans stop going out to buy coffee—is unlikely to come true anytime soon. A recent Zagat survey found that respondents are increasingly purchasing coffee outside of the home, up 8% over 2014. According to Zagat, Americans drink an average of 2.1 cups of coffee per day, with 82% of coffee drinkers consuming it daily.