LONDON, Oct. 6, 2008 -- American coffee giant Starbucks became the target of conservationists today after an investigation by the U.K. newspaper The Sun estimated that the company wasted up to 6 million gallons of water every day, enough to quell the thirst of a small African nation.
As part of a company policy aimed at preventing germ buildup in its taps, Starbucks stores are directed to keep water running constantly into a sink, called a dipper well, to clean utensils and wash away food residue, The Sun reported.
As a result of running water all day, every day at each of the company's 10,000 worldwide coffee emporiums, Starbucks wastes water in an amount The Sun estimated to be "enough daily water for the entire 2 million strong population of drought-hit Namibia in Africa or fill an Olympic pool every 83 minutes."
The investigation was launched after a couple who spotted a running tap at a U.K. Starbucks were told by a store employee that it was left on to clean the pipes. They contacted Starbucks head office to find out more and later received a letter confirming that it was company policy to keep water constantly running into the dipper wells.
The Sun investigation spanned several Starbucks locations in the United Kingdom, including stores in London, Manchester and Birmingham, as well as in New York, Los Angeles, Beijing and Sydney. The practice of leaving taps on during operating hours was consistent in every location; The Sun reported that staff members were banned from turning the water off.
In a statement to ABC News, the company confirmed that "the dipper well system currently in use in Starbucks retail stores ensures that we meet or exceed our own and local health standards."
"Starbucks' challenge is to balance water conservation with the need for customer safety," the statement said.
So does leaving the water on actually make germ buildup less likely?
"They don't need to keep the tap on all the time. … A couple of minutes of running water should [clean the tap]," Jacob Tompkins of Waterwise, a nonprofit organization that focuses on decreasing U.K. water consumption, told ABCNews.com. "You don't keep the water running at home."
The water wastage seems an anomaly for a company that prides itself on its environmental record. In its mission statement posted on the company's Web site, Starbucks claims that it has a commitment to "understand environmental issues, to strive to buy, sell and use environmentally-friendly products, and to instill environmental responsibility as a corporate value."
Apart from the wastage itself, there are potentially other environmental effects. Tompkins said the energy used to pump water from the ground and treat it increases the carbon footprint of the entire operation.
While the company states it is in compliance with the World Health Organization, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and European Union standards, Starbucks admitted that "the opportunity exists to reduce our total water usage."
Tompkins said, "It's really good that they have customer health in mind," but he added that there are other ways to ensure cleanliness and hygiene in its stores.
Tompkins said the aim of his organization is to "reduce waste, not restrict use" and noted that Starbucks deserved credit for its "really good customer health record."
But he also offered some advice on how Starbucks could reduce its water waste and still ensure its stated commitment to customer safety.
He said the company could cut water use when the stores are not extremely busy and also look into ways of "lowering the flow" of water, such as aerating nozzles.
"They can do a water audit and discuss [it] with their staff," he said.
In the statement to ABC News, Starbucks said it has tested more environmentally-friendly ways to maintain its hygiene, including using an ice bath and eliminating spoons altogether.
"Neither of these alternatives was successful," the statement said.
Starbucks stated that other methods are "currently under consideration," including using dishwashers to clean their utensils.
"We continue to routinely re-evaluate our equipment, store design and training opportunities to reduce our overall water use with the goal of ultimately reducing our environmental footprint," the company said.