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Kate Zerrenner headshot

We Actually Have the Technology to Recycle Paper Coffee Cups, But Can It Scale?

For years, the message has been that paper coffee cups are not recyclable because of the polyethylene coating that makes them more durable and heat-resistant. But the process for that is starting to change (and improve).
By Kate Zerrenner
Sustana Recycled Paper Coffee Cup Fiber

Raw and shredded materials at Sustana Fiber’s mill in Breakeyville Quebec. Last fall, Sustana Fiber installed a new high-capacity shredder to help divert valuable materials — including paper coffee cups — from ending up in landfills.

For the sustainability-minded consumer, grabbing a coffee on the run can turn into a pain in the conscience. For years, the message has been that paper coffee cups are not recyclable because of the polyethylene coating that makes them more durable and heat-resistant. The process for that is starting to change — and improve — as the right technology becomes more widely available and more MRFs (materials recovery facilities) begin accepting these cups. The next hurdle is not only scalability, but also educating consumers on recyclability in their area so that their next trip to the coffee shop can come without a side of eco guilt. 

The problem: Too many paper coffee cups and other containers are heading to landfills

U.S. consumers alone use an estimated 54 billion single-use paper coffee cups each year, and the vast majority ends up in landfills — representing both a massive environmental problem and a missed opportunity. “For decades, anything that had polyethylene on it, like a coffee cup, was deemed not recyclable,” Jim Schneider, vice president of operations at Sustana Fiber, a manufacturer of sustainable recycled fiber, told TriplePundit. “But it’s really not that difficult to remove the fiber from the poly layers.” And according to Schneider, that fiber is high-quality and could have a long life beyond a single-use cup.

The longer-term problem goes beyond paper coffee cups, though. Other poly-coated containers, like juice boxes, baby formula containers, and wraps for biscuits and chips, are also mostly landfilled. And an increasing number of products like gravies, pulped tomatoes, and even wine are being packaged in foil- or plastic-lined paper as a means of reducing weight and plastic use. Sustana Fiber, however, continually invests in its facilities to keep waste out of landfills, diverting up to 18,000 tons of aseptic, gable top, and cup waste annually across both its facilities.

The issue is not only the improved technology needed to separate plastic materials from paper in these containers, but also the availability of manufacturing facilities that are able to reclaim the fiber. Sustana Fiber, for example, uses a high-consistency rotor that effectively strips the fibers, whereas most traditional paper manufacturers use low rotors that are not as effective. Schneider sees the possibilities expanding. “Once you crack the nut [of extracting fibers from poly-coated containers], it opens the door to other poly products. There are very few items that we can’t get the fiber back out of,” he said. 

In tandem with packaging shifts, as well as lifestyle changes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Sustana Fiber is seeing an increase in poly-coated containers coming into its facilities, Schneider said. When the company started operations nearly 30 years ago, sorted office paper made up about 90 percent of the materials it received. During the pandemic, as schools and offices shut down, that figure dropped to 45 percent, and the company is seeing more poly-coated food containers as people order more takeout and prepare more of their meals at home. The encouraging thing is that the company is also seeing more waste management companies investing in the capital to sort these items out and get them to facilities like Sustana Fiber’s that can recycle them. 

The solution: Make paper cup recycling mainstream

Still, a lot more education is needed in order to increase the number of communities sending their paper coffee cups and other sorted cups and containers to municipality facilities for recycling, Schneider said. “As we look at the overall problem, one of my big initiatives is educating consumers as well as papermakers and product developers with different packaging structures,” Schneider told 3p. Further, communication throughout the supply chain is necessary to ensure solutions don’t create new problems, such as engineering an alternative that makes a product less recyclable. 

“Plastic is easy to remove,” Schneider explained. “The type of fiber in those cups is southern soft wood, long fiber. It’s a valuable fiber, and it’s a shame any of it makes its way into a landfill for its end of life.” He says it’s possible to use the recovered fiber for new cups, bringing fiber products full circle and contributing to the circular economy. “The biggest win is not just getting the wide variety of things coming in that used to go into the landfill, but now we’re also getting materials that can go back into the products they came from, which is important because food-grade products are more challenging.”

The Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) works with stakeholders to increase uptake and secure the cup’s place in the circular economy. A trade association representing 90 percent of the foodservice packaging industry, the FPI addresses the entire recovery value chain. “We start with the local end markets to ensure our products can and will be recovered,” Ashley Elzinga, director of sustainability and outreach at the FPI, told TriplePundit. “Then, we work with municipalities, waste haulers and MRFs to ensure our products are accepted and sorted properly. Once we have all those pieces in place, we work with the municipality to help educate its residents.” 

Denver is one city that is ahead of the game on recycling single-use cups. In 2018, Colorado’s largest MRF, Alpine Waste and Recycling, announced it would start collecting the cups as well as other poly-coated paper products, making Denver one of the first U.S. cities to offer the service. Last month, Madison, Wisconsin, added itself to a handful of other cities accepting poly-coated containers for recycling. 

Scaling up to meet demand

During the pandemic, as more people relied on curbside and takeaway coffee and food, there was a surge in single-use food and beverage containers. At the same time, some municipalities also curbed their recycling programs and consumers demanded more recycling options, creating a mismatch in demand and supply. 

Both Schneider and Elzinga see the solution in education — of both consumers and MRFs. “Most people are shocked at what we’re able to do with the material,” Schneider said of Sustana Fiber’s paper cup recycling process. Still, since single-use coffee cups make up such a small portion of the overall waste stream, making the case for MRFs to invest in sorting technology is a challenge. “Each success plays a key role in increasing paper cup recycling access,” Elzinga said. 

The bottom line

Aiming for more circularity with single-use paper coffee cups and other containers is a vastly more sustainable option than sending them to the landfill.

While Sustana Fiber brings in 700 tons of cups per month at its plant in De Pere, Wisconsin, Schneider said he would like to see that number increase. To do that, collection has to rise. Sustana Fiber sees circularity as the solution, but it is not a straightforward road. “There are a lot of challenges that present themselves when you try to get a circular economy up and running,” he said. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” To that end, the FPI works with cities to help provide funding to include paper coffee cups in recycling programs. 

Consumer education is another major component as customers can provide the push for their local governments. “Assume there’s value in everything you throw away,” Schneider added. “Repurposing materials into other products is better than sending them to end-of-life at a landfill.” Recycling extends the life cycle of materials, giving new purpose to old products to help realize a zero-waste future. 

This article series is sponsored by Sustana and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Image courtesy of Sustana

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

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