American Food Hero 2019: Rebecca Zimmer
Who she is: Global Director of Environment, Starbucks
What she's doing: Saving plastic straws from landfills
In the late 1990s, Rebecca Zimmer left a good corporate job at Starbucks to follow her passion for documentary photography. She spent five years in Africa, working mostly in villages that housed people with leprosy. What she brought back home with her, besides an impactful portfolio, was a new passion for conservation. In those villages, she came face to face with finite resources for the first time. "You start to understand how every drop of water is sacred," she says. "When I returned to Starbucks in 2004, I was really focused on ways that sensitivity for the environment could play out at a global scale."
Back in Seattle, Zimmer built her own sustainable lifestyle: she drives a hybrid; is a vegetarian; and ensures that every bit of nitrogen-rich coffee grounds from her (off-grid) French press goes straight into her garden compost. And at Starbucks, she is the driving force behind multiple massive conservation projects—including the company's recent commitment to build every new store to LEED standards (an environmentally friendly, energy-thrifty certification) and retrofit existing ones to run on renewable energy sources and use dishwashing practices that will amount to a 30 percent reduction in water use in Starbucks stores by 2025.
But perhaps most notable was when Zimmer took on the growing problem of plastic straws. Last July, Starbucks announced it would phase them out of its stores—worldwide—by 2020, no small win considering Americans alone toss more than 500 million straws every day. While many are made from recyclable polypropylene, they're too light and small to be captured by mechanical sorters—so they end up in our landfills and oceans. Starbucks' move will keep about 1 billion straws annually from impacting our planet. In their place: new sippable lids designed for its cold drinks, which are recyclable and contain 9 percent less plastic than a traditional lid and straw. And that's only the beginning, says Zimmer: "Straws represent an initial foray into addressing our plastics footprint. We're excited about it. But it's just a first step in a global effort."