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The Next Economy
NextGen Consortium Outlines Path Toward Circular Economy for Paper Cups in US

Insights include solutions for paper mills, materials-recovery facilities, brands, consumers and communities to increase recovery of paper cups and reduce waste to landfill.

This week, the NextGen Consortium — an industry collaboration managed by Closed Loop Partners aimed at eliminating single-use foodservice packaging waste by advancing the design, commercialization and recovery of alternative materials and use models — released a new report with practical steps to accelerating paper cup recycling in the US.

Closing the Loop on Cups assesses the role of each stakeholder across the paper cup-recovery value chain — including paper mills, materials-recovery facilities (MRFs), brands, consumers and local communities — and provides recommended actions to increase paper cup recovery opportunities and advance a more circular system.

Every day, millions of people around the world drink from paper cups. They're safe, functional and convenient — so much so that globally, more than 250 billion cups are produced each year. But convenience comes with environmental consequences: Unrecyclable and non-biodegradable, thanks to a plastic inner liner that helps retain temperature and reduce seepage, the majority of paper cups end up in landfill. The NextGen Consortium proposes a three-pronged approach to address cup waste holistically:

  1. Advancing reusable-cup systems that keep materials in circulation for multiple uses

  2. Exploring material-science innovation that enhances the sustainability and recoverability of cup materials, and

  3. Strengthening materials-recovery and -recycling infrastructure that recaptures cups after use.

In the new report, the Consortium — which includes founding partners Starbucks and McDonald's; sector lead partners The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo; and supporting partners JDE Peet's, The Wendy's Company and Yum! Brands — highlights the need to strengthen existing materials-recovery and -recycling infrastructure systems to recapture more paper cups; which will ensure the value embodied in paper cups is recovered, rather than wasted in landfill. These cups contain high-quality fiber that is valuable to paper mills as other paper sources such as newsprint and office paper decline. While the challenges for paper-cup recovery and recycling are significant, collaboration among various stakeholders involved throughout the value chain can help address its scale and complexity.

"The waste generated from to-go paper cups has become a highly visible representation of our disposable, take-make-waste culture. However, these cups also are a valuable resource with growing opportunities for recovery," says Kate Daly, Managing Director and Head of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners. "We know that collaboration across stakeholders — from mills and MRFs to brands and cities — is going to be critical to solving this challenge and ensuring paper cups don't end up in landfill or polluting our environment. The NextGen Consortium plays a key role in advancing the innovation, testing and partnerships needed to make this possible."

Since its founding in 2018, the NextGen Consortium has taken a holistic and collaborative approach to addressing the challenge of single-use cup waste, advancing reuse models, exploring material-science innovations and strengthening materials-recovery and -recycling infrastructure that recaptures cups after use. While material reduction and reuse are key pathways to reduce reliance on virgin resource extraction, end-of-life recovery pathways are equally critical to ensure that the value embodied in all types of cups — including single-use paper cups — is recovered, rather than wasted in landfill.

As companies and brands work to eliminate plastic and other single-use material waste from their operations, many understandably look to paper-based products for solutions. But although paper/paperboard has one of the higher recycling rates in the US at around 68 percent, that number comes from separated material. Many blended and composite materials (such as beverage cups) are hard, if not impossible, to adequately recycle with current technologies — and thus, they often languish in landfill.

Promising reusable and compostable solutions to the beverage-cup-recyclability problem are being piloted in various markets; but while we’re waiting for them to scale, Closing the Loop on Cups highlights key market challenges and corresponding opportunities, including:

  • Today, only about 11 percent of communities accept cups in their recycling operations. This poses a significant barrier to cup recycling, as residents have few options to properly recycle their used cups.

  • While only a handful of cities in the US officially accept cups in their recycling programs, the Foodservice Packaging Institute identified more than 30 paper mills that accept paper cups in mixed-paper bales and an additional five mills accepting cups in carton bales. These mills are taking recovered paper materials, including cups, and reprocessing them into new products.

  • This year, the NextGen Consortium identified more than 15 additional mills across North America that are interested in testing cup acceptance or that can process cups today. This new interest is a tremendous endorsement for the work that is already taking place and can catalyze cup acceptance at MRFs and in new communities in the months and years ahead.

  • Each stakeholder in the value chain has an important role to play in improving paper-cup recycling. The report outlines key calls to action, including calling on:

    • Mills to conduct recycling tests on paper cups to determine if the fiber can be captured without any negative operational impacts at their facilities;

    • MRFs to conduct material-flow studies to determine where best to site interventions for cup sortation and to collaborate with mills and communities to expand acceptable recycling lists as more mills accept cups;

    • Communities to engage with MRFs and mills to evaluate feasibility of adding cups to accepted recyclables list;

    • Consumers to bring their own reusable cups when they can — a program that Starbucks recently expanded to more stores in the US — and to check local recyclability options and guidance when using disposable cups;

    • Brands to source recycled-paper content when procuring their cups and other packaging, among other activities.

As the NextGen Consortium works toward its goal of eliminating foodservice packaging waste, it will continue to work to improve and align recovery and recycling infrastructure across the entire value chain — from collection and sortation to processing and strengthening end markets. Collaborative action, data-driven decision-making and iterative testing continue to be critical to closing the loop on a greater diversity and volume of valuable resources and avoiding unintended consequences. The findings in this report aim to guide the industry towards a future in which reusing valuable materials in products becomes the commonsense norm — the basis of a more circular economy.