PPRC 2018: Pros, cons postconsumer cup recycling

PPRC 2018: Pros, cons postconsumer cup recycling

Brand owners, recycling industry leaders discuss how the industry should handle postconsumer paper cup recycling.

October 24, 2018
Megan Smalley

There are many questions today on what can and can’t be recycled—particularly with items like postconsumer cups. 

During Recycling Today’s Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference, Paper Stock Industries (PSI), the national chapter of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), gathered brand owners and recycling industry leaders to participate in a panel discussion on some of the points and counterpoints to postconsumer cup recycling. Based on the discussion, both sides expressed a desire to recycle postconsumer materials and a concern for finding end markets for these more contaminated commodities.

“How do we keep customers happy but also don’t cause problems for recycling or provide you with materials you don’t want?” asked Amy Duquette, sustainability project manager at HAVI / McDonald’s, during the panel discussion. “We’re looking at the whole thing—how [postconsumer cups] go through MRFs, end markets (and do end markets exist)? This has to make money for people—recycling is not a waste service.” 

Bill Moore, moderator of the session and president of Moore & Associates, Atlanta, said residential recycling is at a bit of a crossroads on this topic. 

“Even before China stopped accepting mixed paper, they had a limitation on anything that touched the mouth,” he said, adding that China could have clamped down on this issue a while ago. “They waited until the current times to put limitations on mixed paper.” 

With the current state of recycling, the following question emerges: Where should the industry stand on recycling postconsumer products like cups from McDonald’s or Starbucks

The following is some of the dialogue between brand owners and recycling industry professionals from the session:  

Discuss what you see as collection problems with postconsumer materials. 

Rebecca Zimmer, global director of environment, Starbucks: We understand that contamination is a concern across all recyclables, and liquids are a concern with cups. We do have challenges on in-store collection on contamination, and that’s because it’s difficult to reinforce behaviors. You have to dump liquids before you recycle. Seattle, D.C., Vancouver—you can recycle cups. However, when you look at options for cups, [they] can go to landfill, recycling or composting. We believe cups have high-value fiber that’s worth recovering in the stream. When residential access opens up to cups, what we’ve heard anecdotally is customers and consumers are doing a better job cleaning out recycled content into the bin.

Amy Duquette, sustainability project manager, HAVI/McDonald’s: A couple of thoughts on this. When we look at our packaging suite, our paper cups hold coffee and tea, and in our cold cups we have fountain beverages. Those [cups] are less concerning than a milkshake or a Big Mac clamshell. From that perspective, no one will want a paper cup filled with liquid, but because the majority of paper cups go home, then it’s just an issue like any other. Are people emptying yogurt tubs before recycling? Are they emptying cups? It’s an issue similar to any other household item you have. Those items have contamination issues, as well. I think the thing to look at is why do the end markets want these items? Some end markets are interested in these cups. Studies show contamination on foodservice packaging is similar to any other item, and it comes down to educating consumers on how to recycle properly. 

Where do you stand on postconsumer cup recycling? 

Linda Leone, vice president northeast region, WestRock: I think a couple of things with regards to WestRock—we’re a paper and packaging company. We also have 26 paper mills and recycling plants that use recycled commodities. The majority of mills use a [certain] amount of recycling, if not 100 percent, so we have to look at this as total picture on supply. We’re still doing some testing to look for our corrugated mills that can consume it. The challenges we had at WestRock were really looking at the cup stock from a standpoint of it does have high fiber yield. It’s good strength for mixed paper. But we also have to make sure mills have cleaning abilities to break down polymers to get good fibers out of the cups. There’s not an end market everywhere for the commodity. 

So, [the other thing we’re trying to figure out is] understanding how collection infrastructure will work. Not all mills everywhere even run recycled or mixed paper, which we in our opinion feel that’s the best value for that.

Kerry Getter, CEO, Balcones Resources: At McDonald’s, I order a No. 3 with a Diet Coke, and at Starbucks, I order a venti coffee with a blueberry scone and an orange juice. And as I wander around some of those stores, when I see some recycling initiative in place, I’ll poke through the recycling container to see what’s in there, and it’s not a pretty sight. We have the responsibility—and I have the responsibility—of making money for our shareholders. 

And really, this entire subject is about the cost of recovery for us and what it costs. And what kind of return on investment we can get for the recovery system that we put in place, not only the recovery side of things but we have to have a mill partner who can use this. And for those of you who sell waste paper, you know what I’m talking about. There need to be multiple end users and it is about the cost of recovery. 

For us, once you accept any items—forget about cups, it could be single-use plastic bags—we have to make money in that initiative day in and day out, regardless of market conditions. My challenge to both McDonald’s and Starbucks, and it seems to me you’re aware of this, is to try to create economic value for your products and understanding what that is. There needs to be in my view a significant argument that allows us to make money. We understand what you all are dealing with. I want you to understand what we’re dealing with. We gotta sell our product day in and day out. If all those issues can be addressed in a way that clearly leads us to a path for a pay day, then we’re happy to pursue it. 

Mark Badger, president and CEO, Canada Fibers: We come from stance of a [material recovery facility] operator. I can only tell you in our experiences that it starts with the anatomy of a cup. The cup we see in Canada is saturated with ink. You have three materials in a cup. We get a lot of them in our MRFs. One of two bad things happen when they come into the plant, and it doesn’t have to be this way. When they come in, if optical sorters are set not so sensitive and [the cups] read as paper and go to bales, customers who consume it don’t really like the fact that the bales have hybrid material in it. It goes to people who view it as contamination and are drowning in contamination because of the epidemic we have in North America. Second thing, which is even worse to me, is if optical sorters are set to real sensitive and they get confused because of the three kinds of material, and [the cups] end up in residue—they end up in the dump. When they go to the dump, it’s a big deal. 

What the heck should we do? I think we do exactly like Amy and Rebecca advocated for—we collaborate. Float an idea, and it begins with the different design of a cup. It’s one idea, although it might not be the optimal idea.