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Paper Cup Recycling: Local Opportunities


Paper cups, once deemed "unrecyclable" due to their polyethylene coatings, are now the focus of collaborative recycling efforts within the industry. Material recovery facilities (MRFs), paper mills, and other stakeholders are working together to develop efficient recycling pathways for paper cups, aiming to integrate them into mainstream recycling initiatives. Despite ongoing challenges, there are abundant opportunities for communities to engage in paper cup recycling and contribute to sustainability efforts.


Journey Towards Recycling


Overcoming the challenges associated with recycling paper cups demands a thorough assessment of their prevalence and effects within the recycling ecosystem. This entails analyzing data on the consumption of paper cups across various industries and understanding their lifecycle from production to disposal.


Additionally, assessing the current infrastructure for paper cup recycling, including the capacity and efficiency of Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) and paper mills, is crucial. By gathering comprehensive information on the volume and impacts of paper cups in the recycling system, stakeholders can develop targeted strategies to improve recycling rates and promote sustainability.


In 2012, the Foodservice Packaging Institute embarked on a comprehensive investigation into Material Recovery Facility (MRF) operations, examining the quantity of cups and other foodservice fiber found in mixed paper bales, and assessing the prevalence of food residue in foodservice packaging. This data-driven approach enabled the institute to collaborate with MRFs and communities, fostering the development of sustainable, long-term solutions for foodservice packaging recovery.


Understanding the dynamics of the end market is crucial to our endeavors. Paper cups, comprising long, bleached fibers prized by paper mills for their capacity to improve the durability and excellence of items crafted from recycled fiber, were initially met with limited acceptance by end markets.


To overcome this obstacle, the Foodservice Packaging Institute worked closely with various mill members and industry collaborators to assess the pulpability of paper cups within mixed paper bales. Extensive trials conducted at both bench and mill scales demonstrated that polycoated paper cups could be effectively recovered. As a result of these findings, from 2018 to 2020, a total of 25 mills began incorporating post-consumer paper cups into their mixed paper stream.


Another opportunity for paper cup recycling lies in incorporating them into polycoat bales alongside cartons. Remarkably, many markets interested in purchasing carton bales are also open to those containing both cups and cartons. This blend creates a top-tier "mill spec" bale, enhancing its appeal and market potential. Recently, there has been a surge in demand for recovered bleached fiber sources, driven in part by the altered work environments resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to a decrease in sorted office paper availability.


In a groundbreaking development in December 2021, a coalition comprising 75% of mixed paper demand in the United States and Canada, alongside various consumers of polycoat bales, issued a landmark declaration of acceptance and dedication to improving paper cup recycling. Despite the current lack of acceptance for paper cups in many mills across the United States, this unified commitment represents a noteworthy leap forward in endeavors to enhance paper cup recovery.


One of the overarching challenges confronting recycling initiatives extends beyond paper cups and encompasses the need to establish or rejuvenate end market infrastructure, notably in regions such as the western United States. The Foodservice Packaging Institute has identified the establishment of domestic recovery pathways as a critical priority. This proactive approach entails actively engaging with emerging domestic markets and offering support to mills as they undertake testing initiatives, which includes providing technical expertise and sample materials.


Actions in MRFs and Communities


Understanding the flow of cups within Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) is essential for optimizing recycling processes. Collaborative studies conducted by the Foodservice Packaging Institute reveal consistent trends. In single-stream MRFs, most cups, even when flattened, are directed to the container line. Many MRF partners choose to integrate paper cups into mixed paper sorting, requiring minimal additional infrastructure. This insight aids in streamlining recycling efforts and maximizing resource recovery.


Certain Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) utilize advanced sorting techniques, such as manual, optical, or robotic sorting, to efficiently segregate paper cups from other recyclable materials. This strategic approach allows MRFs to combine paper cups with items like cartons, enhancing the value of the resulting polycoat bales.


The evolution of recycling practices has resulted in the integration of paper cups into residential curbside programs across many cities in the United States. Just ten years ago, only a handful of communities, including New York City, Seattle, and Emmet County, Mich., were actively engaged in paper cup recycling initiatives. These pioneering communities paved the way for broader adoption, showcasing the viability of paper cup recycling and offering valuable insights for future expansion efforts.


In 2017, the Foodservice Packaging Institute launched its Community Partnership program to broaden the recycling efforts for cups and other foodservice packaging in more cities. This program acts as a conduit between communities and their Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs), streamlining connections with end markets while offering access to technical know-how and communication resources.


Over the past five years, the Community Partnership program has cultivated 15 collaborations, driving a notable surge in paper cup recycling across numerous U.S. cities. Atlanta, Denver, Detroit, Louisville, Madison, and Washington, D.C., stand out as recent additions to the roster of recycling municipalities. Through the concerted efforts of the Foodservice Packaging Institute and its allies in Michigan, over 70% of residents in the state now have access to paper cup recycling. These effective initiatives serve as exemplars for other communities striving to bolster their recycling endeavors and provide residents with expanded recycling options.


The Community Partnership program focuses on enhancing recycling efforts by incorporating more recyclable items through effective outreach strategies. Emphasizing the importance of clean and empty recyclables, our partners have noticed considerable improvements in program quality and engagement.


Achieving Goals: A Forward Push


While significant progress has been achieved in the last decade, widespread acceptance of paper cup recycling remains a substantial challenge. To drive progress, it's essential to prioritize sustainability goals pertaining to recyclable packaging and recycled materials across the supply chain. This involves ongoing collaboration efforts, expanding the incorporation of cups into recycling programs that support existing cup end markets, and further developing domestic markets for recycled materials.


Now is an opportune time to revisit the landscape of paper cup recycling initiatives and tap into potential opportunities for your community. By reaching out to your local Material Recovery Facility (MRF) or engaging with end markets, you can explore innovative solutions and partnerships aimed at enhancing recycling efforts. Stay informed about the latest advancements in recycling technology and sustainability practices to ensure your community stays at the forefront of eco-friendly initiatives. Collaborate with stakeholders and organizations dedicated to environmental stewardship to maximize the impact of your recycling endeavors and contribute to a greener future.






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