For the sustainability-conscious consumer, grabbing a coffee on the go can be a headache. For years the message has been that paper coffee cups are not recyclable due to the polyethylene coating which makes them more durable and heat resistant. The process for this is starting to change – and improve – as the right technology becomes more widely available and more and more MRFs (material recovery facilities) start to accept these cups. The next hurdle is not only scalability, but also educating consumers about recyclability in their area so that their next trip to coffee can be done without any side of ecological guilt.
The problem: too many paper coffee cups and other containers are heading to landfills
American consumers alone use about 54 billion single-use paper coffee cups each year, and the vast majority end up in landfills, representing both a massive environmental problem and a missed opportunity. “For decades, anything that contained polyethylene, like a coffee cup, was considered non-recyclable,” Jim Schneider, vice president of operations at Sustana Fiber, a manufacturer of sustainable recycled fibers, told TriplePundit. “But it’s really not that hard to remove the fiber from the poly layers. And according to Schneider, this fiber is of high quality and could have a long lifespan beyond a single use cup.
The longer-term problem goes beyond paper coffee cups, however. Other poly-coated containers, such as juice boxes, infant formula containers, and cookie and chip wrappers, are also mostly landfilled. And a growing number of products like sauces, tomato pulp, and even wine are wrapped in foil or plastic-lined foil to reduce weight and reduce the use of plastic. Sustana Fiber, however, continually invests in its facilities to prevent waste from ending up in landfills, diverting up to 18,000 tonnes of aseptic, gable roof and beaker waste per year at its two facilities.
The problem is not only the improvement in the technology required to separate the plastics from the paper in these containers, but also the availability of manufacturing facilities capable of recovering the fiber. Sustana Fiber, for example, uses a high consistency rotor that effectively strips fibers, while most traditional papermakers use low rotors that are not as efficient. Schneider sees the possibilities expand. “Once you’ve cracked the nut [of extracting fibers from poly-coated containers], it opens the door to other poly products. There are very few items from which we cannot recover the fiber, ”he said.
Along with packaging changes, as well as lifestyle changes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Sustana Fiber is seeing an increase in poly-coated containers entering its facilities, Schneider said. When the company started operations almost 30 years ago, sorted office paper made up about 90% of the materials it received. During the pandemic, as schools and offices closed, that number fell to 45%, and the company is seeing more poly-coated food containers as people order more take-out and prepare more food. their meals at home. What is encouraging is that the company is also seeing more and more waste management companies investing capital to sort these items and route them to facilities like Sustana Fiber that can recycle them.
The solution: generalize the recycling of paper cups
Yet much more education is needed in order to increase the number of communities sending their sorted paper coffee mugs and other cups and containers to municipal facilities for recycling, Schneider said. “As we look at the big picture, one of my big initiatives is to educate consumers as well as paper manufacturers and developers of products with different packaging structures,” Schneider told 3p. In addition, communication throughout the supply chain is necessary to ensure that solutions do not create new problems, such as designing an alternative that makes a product less recyclable.
“The plastic is easy to remove,” Schneider explained. “The type of fiber in these cups is southern softwood, long grain. It’s a precious fiber, and it’s a shame that it ends up in landfill at the end of its life. He says it is possible to use the recovered fiber for new cups, which closes the loop of fiber products and contributes to the circular economy. “The biggest victory is not only getting the wide variety of things that 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 the products of food grade are more difficult.
The Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) works with stakeholders to increase adoption and ensure the cup’s place in the circular economy. A trade association representing 90 percent of the foodservice packaging industry, the REIT covers the entire recovery value chain. “We start with local end markets to make sure our products can and will be recovered,” Ashley Elzinga, REIT’s director of sustainability and outreach, told TriplePundit. “Then we work with municipalities, waste haulers and MRFs to make sure our products are accepted and sorted correctly. Once we have all of these elements in place, we work with the municipality to help educate its residents. ”
Denver is a city that is ahead of the curve when it comes to recycling single-use cups. In 2018, Colorado’s largest MRF, Alpine Waste and Recycling, announced it would begin collecting cups as well as other poly-coated paper products, making Denver one of the first U.S. cities to offer this service. Last month, Madison, Wisconsin joined a handful of other cities accepting poly-coated containers for recycling.
Evolve to meet demand
During the pandemic, as more people relied on curbside and take-out coffee and food, there was an increase in single-use food and drink containers. At the same time, some municipalities have also reduced their recycling programs and consumers have demanded more recycling options, creating a mismatch between supply and demand.
Schneider and Elzinga both see the solution in education – consumers and FRMs. “Most people are shocked at what we can do with the material,” Schneider said of Sustana Fiber’s paper cup recycling process. Nevertheless, given that single-use coffee cups represent such a small part of the overall waste stream, it is difficult to convince MRFs to invest in sorting technology. “Each success plays a key role in increasing access to paper cup recycling,” said Elzinga.
The bottom line
Aiming for more circularity with single-use paper coffee cups and other containers is a much more sustainable option than sending them to landfill.
As Sustana Fiber produces 700 tonnes of cups per month at its plant in De Pere, Wisconsin, Schneider said he would like to see that number increase. To do this, the collection must increase. Sustana Fiber sees circularity as the solution, but it is not a simple path. “There are a lot of challenges when you try to achieve a circular economy,” he said. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” To this end, the FPI is working with cities to help provide funds to include paper coffee mugs in recycling programs.
Consumer education is another major element, as customers can provide the impetus for their local governments. “Suppose there is value in whatever you throw away,” Schneider added. “It is better to reuse materials in other products than to send them at the end of their life to a landfill. Recycling extends the life cycle of materials, giving old products a new purpose to help achieve a zero waste future.
This series of articles is sponsored by Sustana and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image courtesy of Sustana