Earlier this year, Starbucks sent 18 truckloads of old paper cups to a paper mill in Wisconsin to prove a point: Contrary to a widespread myth, paper coffee cups can be recycled cost-effectively. The cups–25 million in total, from excess inventory that the coffee chain otherwise would have sent to landfill–were processed at the mill. Then the recycled fiber was sent to another partner to be incorporated into paperboard for new Starbucks cups.
The pilot project was a way to “demonstrate that a coffee cup can be turned back into a coffee cup,” says Jay Hunsberger, VP of sales for North America from Sustana, the mill that recycled the old cups. At the mill, the cups were mixed with water and ground into a pulp with a seven-foot-tall corkscrew to begin to separate the plastic lining that helps keep coffee cups from getting soggy. The fibers were screened and washed to finish the separation, then made into sheets and sent to WestRock, a packaging company, to be made into paperboard. At a third company, Seda, the board was printed with the Starbucks logo and shaped into new cups.
“There’s a misconception right now in the industry regarding the recyclability of poly-coated paperboard,” says Mike Mueller, senior manager of product marketing at WestRock. “I think that’s a big reason why that type of packaging isn’t accepted for recycling today broadly.” WestRock recently began accepting cups, along with paper food packaging, at eight of its own mills.
It’s commonly thought that it’s difficult or expensive to separate the plastic lining from the cups, or that contamination from coffee is an issue. But it’s no more expensive to recycle cups than other paper, Hunsberger says. And whether they are used or not also doesn’t matter. Before the pilot with Starbucks, Sustana already regularly recycled other coated food containers like milk cartons. Coffee cups actually yield higher-quality fiber than some other paper products.
One challenge is the supply–if it’s hard for a mill to predict how many cups it will get, it makes it hard to run efficiently. But if a mill knows that it will get a continuous stream of a certain percentage of cups, it’s not difficult to handle. “The material does behave a little differently, you do modify your process to be able to handle it, but if it is a consistent add into your process, then you can adapt for it and run it,” says Hunsberger.
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