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Rolling coffee cups into the circular economy

Sponsored: Sustana Fiber is addressing challenges in the recyclability of paper cups, providing sustainable packaging options for environmentally conscious brands.

This article is sponsored by Sustana Fiber.

Are coffee cups recyclable?

A whole lot of guidance out there says they’re not, owing to the thin layer of plastic or wax that keeps the paper cups from falling apart in your hands. It turns out, though, that these cups are perfectly recyclable — it’s just that many municipalities don’t do it.

Sustana Fiber is working to change that, and to advance the inclusion of takeaway hot and cold cups in the circular economy. The company does this both by working with material recovery facilities to recycle used paper cups, and by supplying the resulting fiber to paperboard manufacturers for use in new cups with ever-increasing proportions of post-consumer recycled content. For example, earlier this month, Sustana Fiber supplied the recycled fibers for a new brand of cup stock paperboard that contains up to 32 percent post-consumer recycled fiber, a much higher percentage than the industry standard.

Such efforts have never been more important. Americans generate more waste than people in any other country in the world. Containers and packaging make up the largest portion, or about 30 percent, of the municipal solid waste we generate. That’s the equivalent of 4.5 pounds per person per day, and only slightly more than a third of it is recycled or composted.

Containers and packaging make up the largest portion, or about 30 percent, of the municipal solid waste we generate.
After China’s recent decision to stop accepting the vast majority of the waste it once took from the United States for processing, a growing amount of recyclable material is once again ending up in the landfill. This has prompted an increasingly sophisticated and urgent conversation about the environmental damage associated with containers and packaging.

Recycling the cup

Last year, Sustana Fiber participated in a pilot program with Starbucks in which our Fox River facility processed 25 million Starbucks coffee cups into high-quality fiber that was then used to make new Starbucks cups. The project was Sustana Fiber’s way of demonstrating that a coffee cup can be turned back into a coffee cup. In fact, we process food and beverage containers such as coffee cups every day into high-quality fiber that can be used to make a broad range of products, such as tissue, printing and writing paper and food packaging. 

The challenge with recycling paper cups is that not all municipalities accept them, something Sustana Fiber is working to change. We are a member of the Foodservice Packaging Initiative (FPI), a trade association that has several initiatives aimed at expanding recycling rates. The FPI’s Paper Recovery Alliance, which counts Sustana Fiber among its core companies, brings together the entire paper cup and container supply chain, from raw material supplier through operators, to voluntarily take responsibility for their packaging and ensure that more of it gets recycled and composted. We also work directly with materials recovery facilities to educate them about how to sort paper cups.

Closing the loop

It’s important to prove that paper cup recycling is indeed possible, but it’s also increasingly important to look at how that cup was created in the first place. That’s why Sustana Fiber supplied fiber for use in a cup stock paperboard that contains up to 32 percent post-consumer recycled fiber. 

Previously, the industry standard for post-consumer recycled content in paper cups was only about 10 percent. The cup stock used Sustana Fiber’s EnviroLife – a 100-percent, post-consumer recycled fiber that is FDA-compliant for use in direct food contact packaging under all conditions of use. Post-consumer recycled fiber embodies the circular economy in that it’s manufactured from recycled products that have served a purpose for end-users, then sold to the market where it again serves a useful purpose.

Our chairman and CEO, Fabian de Armas, said it well: "This is an industry milestone that we are proud to be a part of. Thanks to Sustana Fiber’s unique product, we are raising the bar for what’s possible in the circular economy, especially at a particularly critical time for the recycling industry, and for sustainable business as a whole."

Perhaps serendipitously, recovered paper cups actually can yield higher-quality recycled fiber than some other paper products. In that sense, recycled content isn’t just a way for foodservice companies to reduce waste — it may confer its own benefits. Instead of attempting to overcome the perceived deficits of a recycled fiber, this new cup stock paperboard leverages its unique virtues in service of a quality product. That kind of approach improves the value proposition of a circular economy.

Now, more than ever, consumers are looking to companies to lead the charge in sustainability stewardship, and at Sustana Fiber, we are proud to be an enduring supply chain partner for environmentally conscious companies looking to move the needle. We have a deep commitment to sustainability, and our key focus is partnering with like-minded organizations to create a closed-loop fiber future.

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