PaperAge Magazine

Starbucks Recycled 25 Million Old Paper Coffee Cups Into New Cups

Starbucks, Sustana, and WestRock work together to demonstrate the recyclability of paper cups.

Sustana - recycled paper cups The cups – 25 million in total, from excess inventory that Starbucks otherwise would have sent to landfill – were processed at Sustana's Fox River Fiber Facility in De Pere, Wisconsin. The recycled pulp was then sent to a WestRock mill to be used for paperboard. Photo credit: Sustana.

By Adele Peters, staff writer at Fast Company

Dec. 3, 2018 (Fast Company) - 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.

Local recyclers also have to be willing to take the cups–something that's uncommon now. In San Francisco, the local recycling company, Recology, began accepting cups in 2017. The company, which uses sophisticated equipment to sort its recycling, says that its reputation for “clean” bales of materials means that paper brokers are willing to accept paper coffee cups in the mix. Seattle, New York City, and D.C. are among a handful of other cities that also recycle cups. The latest city to begin recycling paper coffee cups is Denver, which recently sent its first shipment of two truckloads, or around 88,000 cups, to Sustana.

WestRock says that other municipal recycling centers should also begin to accept cups. “Part of why we're trying to generate awareness about these activities is so other companies that own recycling centers and paper mills will begin to come on board with this, and we'll begin to get it to scale over time,” says Mueller.

The complete story can be read on Fast Company's website: www.fastcompany.com.

SOURCE: Fast Company