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Our Insights 5 Oct 2018

SustainAbility at Climate Week NYC: Closing the Loop on Paper Cups

By Margo Mosher

© Photo by Charles Koh on Unsplash.

SustainAbility was at Climate Week in New York City last week and will be sharing blog updates about some of the events throughout the week.

Event: Sustainable Packaging Coalition Advance Conference – A Fix For Your Daily Coffee Fix

Paper cups have long been a challenge to recycle. The lining inside the cup that keeps your hot coffee or tea from soaking through the paper and creating a mess complicates the recycling process and isn’t easily separated by today’s recycling equipment. And this is a real problem because as a global society we use a lot of paper cups – approximately 600 billion each year, most of which end up in landfills. But a recent collaboration has shown that it’s possible to recycle used paper cups into new ones. ‘Cup to Cup: Closing the Loop’ is a partnership between Sustana fiber company, Starbucks and WestRock that has tested out the process of recycling paper cups into new ones.

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Paper cups have long been a challenge to recycle. We use approximately 600 billion each year, most of which end up in landfills.

The three organizations, along with representatives from the Closed Loop Fund and Kotkamills Oy presented their story on a recent panel discussion at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition Advance conference in Boston. The collaboration started when Starbucks had 18 truckloads of cups that it had collected that could be recycled. Sustana invested in equipment and technology that enables it to separate the lining from the cups, and was able to turn the 18 truckloads of cups back into pulp. Sustana then worked with Seda packaging and WestRock to use the fiber to create new cups that are FDA-compliant for food safety. And thus, this partnership of organizations was able to close the loop on the paper cups.

This successful pilot will help Starbucks work towards its sustainability goal of doubling the recycled content, the recyclability and the reusability of their paper cup by 2022. To help achieve its goal Starbucks has also joined forces with Closed Loop Partners for the NextGen Cup Challenge: a multi-year partnership of food industry leaders to address single used food packaging waste. The challenge seeks to find a global solution to for advancing recoverable fiber to-go cup systems. And while Starbucks estimates that its cups account for only 1% of those 600 billion cups used each year, they acknowledge the importance of solving the problem both for their own cups, and for paper cups more broadly.

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‘Cup to Cup: Closing the Loop’ is a partnership between Sustana fiber company, Starbucks and WestRock that has tested out the process of recycling paper cups into new ones.

The ‘Cup to Cup’ proof-of-concept project with Sustana, Starbucks and WestRock was on a small scale but it demonstrates that it can be done. We now must figure out ways to expand this model and enable recycling of paper cups on a larger scale. This will not only take investments and further collaborations, but also consumer education and behavioral changes to ensure the cups end up in recycling bins.

But it will be worthwhile to pursue: avoiding the sourcing of virgin fiber, sending cups to landfills, and ultimately decreasing waste and the negative environmental and social impacts of throwing away cups will help create the sustainable future we need.

Check out this video about the ‘Cup to Cup: Closing the Loop’ partnership.

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