paper recycling bales
Some coffee cups eventually may make it to a MRF and then a paper mill in mixed grades, but is widespread diversion actually occurring?
Photo by Recycling Today staff

Does coffee cup recycling have a weak link?

For a recycling loop to fully close, collection is an obvious and necessary link.

July 13, 2022

Encouraging progress toward increasing the recycling rate of coffee cups seems to have been made in the past several years, with many stakeholders in that chain demonstrating a willingness to get involved.

Most recently, paperboard and packaging producer Sonoco announced it is among the paper mill operators that have made arrangements to use collected cups (or unused cup stock or inventory) as part of its recovered fiber mix.

Paper recycling industry veteran Jonathan Gold also is encouraged by recent developments, but he says he maintains concern that widespread progress in collecting used, discarded cups might not be receiving the support it needs.

Gold is not alone in this viewpoint, with Joel Litman of Dallas-based Texas Recycling and Leonard Zeid of St. Louis-based Midland-Davis both questioning, in a May Recycling Today article, whether viable, widespread collection efforts have been established in the United States.

Gold, who spent decades connecting recovered fiber with mill destinations, is more than just a disinterested observer. He currently is playing a supporting role with California-based Smart Planet Technologies. That company offers a mineralized barrier material for paper cups known as EarthCoating that makes cups 100 percent recyclable, Gold says.

In that role, Gold says what he has observed is that while cup producers, material recovery facility (MRF) operators, some mills and traders have offered support to boosting cup recycling, that same level of support from retailers can be harder to nail down.

One barrier to a fully closed loop involves the polymer coatings commonly used to make cups versus the alternative barrier material that is offered by Smart Planet but not yet widely adopted in America.

Current polymer coatings present a ceiling for paper mill use of cups, Gold says. “What would happen if a full truck load of baled polycup or baled polyboard arrived at a mill?” he asks Recycling Today. “Would it be accepted? I would wager to say most could not use a full truckload.”

To borrow a phrase sometimes applied to unwanted substances placed in a larger body of water (and not always applauded), “The solution to pollution is dilution” seems to be the mindset.

Gold continues, “Most of these mills are stating they will accept cups in their mixed paper, and the reason is very simple: In your average bale of residential mixed paper (RMP), or in an office paper mix, there has typically been 1 percent or less of cup material in their bales. The specification for mixed paper states the bale can contain up to 3 percent out-throws and 2 percent prohibitive materials in a bale. Therefore, the material would be acceptable if the mill is purchasing grade No. 54 grade mixed paper.”

The cups thus make it to the mill, but Gold is skeptical as to what happens after that. “At most paperboard mills, the polycoated material ends up in the detrashing or rejection system and is not pulped. That material ends up in landfill. A key question to ask is whether it is actually being recycled.”

Gold adds, “We all know that it’s difficult to recycle polycoated paper cups, and polycoated cups do not pass industry-standard recyclability tests. However, calling polycoated cups recyclable relaxes the pressure on retailers to use paper cups that pass industry-standard recyclability tests, and recyclers will continue to receive cups that create challenges in recycling. We should be improving the quality of bales rather than excusing contaminating materials.”

Gold, who acknowledges he has a dog in the hunt in favor of nonpoly coatings, says directly, “Retailers truly interested in a closed loop should be embracing fully recyclable barrier material. Sustainability starts with design.” Clearly, he wonders whether many retailers would just as soon not bother.

His fear is that retailers who can tout the appearance of making progress in coffee cup recycling prefer that road versus making investments that do not present an instantly foreseeable return.

“Many of the large coffee store or restaurant chains want the public to believe their companies are both sustainable and strong environmental champions for recycling,” Gold says. “However, the commercial waste stream from these chains has high amounts of polycoated materials, far above the minimal amount of polycoated material being tolerated within the residential mixed bale. In order to make these materials more acceptable to recyclers, beyond using recyclable packaging, there will be a need to act on recovering and recycling this material at their stores.”

Gold adds, “For them, this could become a ‘hassle,’ and they don’t want to be bothered with it. If not the reason, then why are they not using a recyclable cup? None of this makes sense, unless they want the public to believe they are sustainable but don’t want the burden to act on this.”

In addition to resolving the coating issue, another potential objection of retailers is that recycling collection is not a core competency for them. As well, the ability of used cups with sweetener and milk residues to attract pests raises an objection long-held (perhaps understandably) by retailers that also have traditionally opposed mandatory participation in soda and beer container deposit-return systems.

Recycling more coffee cups each year can be seen as something to be celebrated. However, progress toward collecting and recycling a high double-digit percentage of the cups could require additional thought.

Gold says he is more than just an advocate for Smart Planet when he raises the issue of coffee cup recycling’s uncertain genuine progress. His 40-plus-year career supplying recovered fiber to paperboard producers has him convinced that “packaging materials should be designed to be recovered as a material that is useful as possible.”

He says EarthCoating works, with Smart Planet’s coating having been used in “over 1.5 billion cups to date—qualified in premium paper bales, rather than mixed paper—with some being made into gift wrap for Hallmark or copy paper by Australian Paper.”  That figure has been reached in Europe and Australia, Gold says, with little American involvement.

Mills in the U.S. need the material, he adds, and ultimately would benefit by having access to cups that are fully welcome in a recycled-content pulping process.