Flow, baby, flow: Starbucks keeps water faucets wide open

October 8, 2008


Starbucks calls it “the dipper well system.” You might call it a million and a half gallons of San Luis Obispo County water wasting down the drain each and every month.

The coffee Goliath’s worldwide policy of keeping water taps open and flowing in stores during business hours — which company officials consider a “sanitary” practice — is sharply at odds with California’s worsening 100-year drought. It also is beginning to spark an international outcry.

Yet 23 Starbucks stores in SLO County follow the policy, according to a corporate spokesperson. A spot check of six local establishments Tuesday by CalCoastNews reporters showed the “dipper well system“ was at work in five, and one had two faucets flowing at full capacity. Several Starbucks employees freely acknowledged the practice in which a sink utilized to keep spoons and utensils clean is kept flowing with a never-ending supply of fresh water.

Gary Henderson, San Luis Obispo’s water division manager, said he has “never heard of the practice” and promised to look into the issue.

At an average store in this county open for eight hours a day, the “dipper well system” squanders about 72,000 gallons of water a month.

A Starbucks spokesperson at corporate headquarters in Seattle admitted that company officials are concerned about the practice but have no immediate plans to alter it.

“We recognize that the dipper well system and the subsequent amount of water that is used by the system is an issue that needs immediate attention,” the spokesperson wrote in an e-mail. “We are working to address this issue. Starbucks’ challenge is to balance water conservation with the need for customer safety. The dipper well is an effective and proven system to rinse away food and liquid residue. It helps keep utensils clean and prevents bacterial growth, ensuring we meet or exceed our own and local health standards, which is our priority.

“We are working to find alternative solutions to help minimize water use while complying with food safety regulatory requirements and we are actively evaluating several solutions. We are committed to phasing in new practices as they are proven safe and effective.”

In September, the coffee monolith began distributing “GOOD Sheets” to create dialogue on current issues. The first GOOD Sheet discusses “all the CO2 in the world.”

The pamphlets, published about once a week, emphasize Starbucks “commitment to sustainable practices.” Conservationists, however, concerned that the practice is harming the environment, raise questions about the company’s alleged commitment to a sustainable, shared planet.

An uproar by environmentalists and water officials in the United Kingdom this week fostered by the American company’s open-faucet policy resulted in a bit of a reversal: Starbucks bosses said they will seek alternative solutions for the U.K., but in the meantime, their taps, too, will remain open.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Member Opinions:

By: thirdparty on 12/7/08

real smart, just think if every one had the same mentallity, we would be in a world of hurt.

By: SLORider on 10/18/08

OUTRAGEOUSLY IRRESPONSIBLE JOURNALISM! The claimed 72,000 gal is PER YEAR NOT PER MONTH! Typical flow rates for these SANITARY devices as REQUIRED BY LAW are 0.5 gpm–do some reasearch CCN! Do the math CCN! These devices equate to a drinking fountain, not a gushing faucet. WHY target Starbucks? Coldstone uses these. So do most bars and many restaurants. The leaky toilets in 100 homes easily outflows one or more dipper wells—multiply that by 200,000 county residents. SHAME on you CCN for using ignorant attacks and loaded language under the guise of "journalism". You've made the Tribune look good today.

By: Vagabond on 10/13/08

I'm from Los Osos, although not living there at this time.

There is a Starbucks there, if they are wasting that much water in an area that is in a stage two water shortage someone needs to put a halt to it ASAP


By: Countdown on 10/12/08

Tell the over 1 billion people without adequate drinking water that there is no water shortage.

By: ThomasPaine on 10/12/08

The old water that we have is the same water that was around for the dinosaurs routine huh? You need a new act.

As aquifers are depleted it is taking more time for them to be replenished, in some cases and in some parts of the world not replenished at all.

As mentioned, population increases have a direct effect also.

As more water is being polluted it is leaving less potable water available for consumption. With weather patterns shifting resulting in less rainfall in many areas, well you get the idea. It is not a obvious quid pro quo and definitely not an excuse to abuse the water we do have.

By: Joe on 10/11/08

The water you drink has been through a few kidneys before yours and the kidneys of many different species. Plants, animals, fungi, chemicals.

What you drink, has been pee'd by someone or something before you watered your lawn with it, washed your car or washed your hands.

There is no water shortage.

Never will be.

All the water we started with is still here.

There may be too many consumers of the waters we have, but that's a much different topic.

By: Goyo on 10/11/08

The water is only wasted if it is allowed to dry up. Otherwise it continues downstream even if, initially, it is as urine. The flow is treated then added to the normal stream. Starbucks is paying to sustain normal riparian flow. This is money for the Department of Water and Power. This water is not wasted. Air-conditioned stores with open doors is another thing entirely.

By: George on 10/10/08

Starbucks gourmet coffee rituals were developed in Seattle, a town with abundant and cheap water and power. They should think about tailoring this ritual to suit local customs/conditions.

It is a shame that coffee as religion* was born in Seattle instead of Cambria. (* the coffee goddess is on the Starbucks logo)

By: Countdown on 10/10/08

Leaving taps open and running for any reason just makes no sense in this day and age. Leaving taps open does not make an establishment any more sanitary, such thinking is utter foolishness.

By 2050 a large part of the population is going to be in dire need of available water, it is only logical for people to conserve as much as possible.

By: outsider on 10/10/08

Like i said…we need an investigation…not only of Starbucks but the people that drink there..there must be a connection..Lets have Barney Frank or Chris Dodd get involved…

By: Joe on 10/10/08

Leave a garden hose on at the spigot, it will probably drip somewhere. Average that out over the number of homes on the county water system, then reduce that to consider that maybe some people know how to fasten a hose. Figure the number of homes who just don't care, the number of businesses that wash dumpsters, sidewalks, cars.

Leaving one or two faucets running from 5am to 11pm in a coffee shop, whether it's some howlee or a stoner from Seattle isn't going to hurt or help the dutch boy with his finger in the dyke (dike?). If the building is in compliance, the maximum water flow is restricted to 2.5 or 2.2 GPM

Here's a fun little tool kids….


What does your friend the proctologist say about your opinions he finds?

By: hotdog on 10/9/08

A lot of our practices are common-that really means nothing. The most significant issue that separates Homo Sapiens from the rest of the planet is our supposed ability to think and solve complex problems (big deal about opposing fingers etc). Of course looking at the political scene and other scenarios in our lives this theory comes into question. But to solve our problems we will have to think, and make sacrifices. Blindly throwing resources away is idiotic and, in the future, when others look back, we will be considered suicidal fools.

This stupid practice at Starbucks, the selfish mega store open door policy (while wasting tens of thousands of BTUs of energy) and other frivolous practices of 'modern civilization' will, in time, make the Fall of Rome look like a walk in the park.

Drive less, use less, question others who live like there is no tomorrow.

By: ThomasPaine on 10/9/08

You're correct that it is easy to pick on Starbucks for many reasons. But I'm not so sure that the rest of your opinions are as on target. The coffee place I frequent on rare occasion does not utilize a dip well and at the ice cream shop in Paso the water is on but a trickle.

My friend who owns part of a small coffee plantation in Hawaii as well as a coffee shop there tells me that is not what they do. In any event it just seems wasteful and unnecessary in a time when world wide water shortages are predicted in the near future.

By: Joe on 10/9/08

It is a common sanitary practice. Every food service, especially those that serve ice cream leave water running. Check behind the counter anywhere. My experience is, the vineyards are the worst wasters of water, not on irrigation. one of the biggie's actually trucks it's waste water away so they don't have to pay a penalty for dumping the harmful materials into the system. As far as wasting water, any building that has floor drains will have "trap primers" that run water into the pipes to keep fresh water in the "J" or "P" traps, If there was no water there, the gases from the sewage system would come right in. Ice makers and water filters use "waste" water in the process of cleaning the product and using up to 75% 'waste" to carry the contaminates away. Starbucks is just low hanging fruit, it's easiest to get people upset at the big coffee company. Check the plumbing and sanitary codes, it's both national and state code. Look down at the floor, see the 12×12" floor sinks? See the 7" drains? that's the small stuff.

Answer me this; Why is it that a residence/home has to have a tub before it can get an occupancy permit? By the time you really research and learn why, you'll find more water wasted than just a few dipper wells.

By: ThomasPaine on 10/9/08

That was pretty funny about the cost of their coffee.

Not going to Starbucks may work on an individual basis but I don't think that alone will change their water use habits. I don't see the attraction of Starbucks either as many places make very good coffee, some with fair trade coffee. lol

I have a friend who goes to great lengths to save water. Even though he has his own well he has a catchment system for rain water and designed his house to use dry eco san toilets. When people like him and others do so much to save water it is just irritating to see others waste it so carelessly.

By: footefoote on 10/9/08

Pretty simple solution: Buy your coffee elsewhere. Pretty much every other coffee shop in town serves better stuff than 'Buckies.

By: outsider on 10/9/08

Obama would mandate a complete shutdown of Starbucks for the betterment of middle america…

By: Cindy on 10/9/08

It seems to me that Star Bucks would fall into line very fast if the water company would place sanctions on them based on their water usage. Give them time to purchase more spoons and a dishwasher and then "sock it em". The comment about Star Bucks water rates and the cost of a cup of their coffee was very amusing. It gave me a chuckle but then, I make my own coffee so it's easy for me to laugh about it.

By: CuriousGeorgia on 10/9/08

How many of us actually think about what it takes to get us fresh, easily accessed water—the processing, delivery system, etc? Water is a resource. It needs to be used wisely.

The rest of us are watering our plants with the water we catch as the shower is warming up so that Starbucks can pour it down the drain as they make more money?


By: Truthbeknown on 10/8/08

ThomasPaine said: "It would be interesting to see what rate Starbucks pays for water."

Perhaps that's why their coffee is so expensive?

By: outsider on 10/8/08

Lets sue somebody…or better yet, start an investigation.

By: MyThoughts on 10/8/08

Maybe that is why we so desperately need the Naciemiento Pipeline … to feed all the Starbucks in the County :)

By: ThomasPaine on 10/8/08

I did say free trade didn't I. I have spent so much time writing about the myth of free trade that I got caught up in the moment. I make my own coffee for the most part but when I do purchase coffee it is from one of the local purveyors that only use fair trade coffee. And no they aren't hippie's and they don't leave the water running.

It would be interesting to see what rate Starbucks pays for water.

By: Newsome on 10/8/08

1,500,000 gallons per month is 18,000,000 gallons annually, which is the amount of water required for 90 "families of four" to use.

I think we should be thanking Sbucks for using water as a weapon to keep those additional people out of our county.

Good work.

By: ThomasPaine on 10/8/08

I don't understand it either as it just does not make any sense. There are many ways to clean utensils without wasting a million and a half gallons of water a month.

By: Laura on 10/8/08

Running the water like that just doesn't make any sense. Why don't they just get more spoons and a dish washer? Ice cream shops and the like

run a small tiny faucet for their ice cream scoops but I've never heard of running a regular faucet full blast to keep your spoons clean. They should be fined for this practice. Its just not reasonable.

By: ThomasPaine on 10/8/08

Another reason to only frequent coffee establishments that provide free trade coffee. Using that much water is inexcusable.

By: DreamedOfLivingThere on 10/8/08

I for one am going to turn on my lawn sprinklers and drive my SUV to the local sbucks and give them a piece of my mind.

Has anyone notified the authorities?

By: hotdog on 10/8/08

Wow, what an outrage! This sort of reckless waste of resources is rampant in our society, I hope we can reduce our unsustainable use asap.

This reminds me of the selfish corporate stores in SLO, leaving their doors open while running their cooling/heating at full blast. Like the coffee giant they don't care about the planet or what our young folks will have left in 20 years; their focus is only money and ease of operation now.

And most people are so numb to sensible practices (their parents failed them badly) this is a tough situation to address.

It is up to all citizens, when you see waste going on do something about it, even in your own home. If you look closely you will find many areas of personal living that could stand to be improved; using less now means we will have more later on.

By: DreamedOfLivingThere on 10/8/08

Outrageous. Just terrible.

Waiting for a follow up on their use of toilet paper.