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“Closing the loop on cups”: NextGen Consortium releases report for enhanced paper cup recycling in the US

#“Closing the loop on cups”: NextGen Consortium releases report for enhanced paper cup recycling in the US

06 Nov 2023 — The NextGen Consortium has unveiled a report that offers insights to enhance paper cup recycling across the US. The report, titled “Closing the Loop on Cups: Collective Action to Advance the Recovery of Paper Cups in the US,” delves into the roles played by various stakeholders in the paper cup recovery process and lays out recommended actions for fostering a more circular system.

Closed Loop Partners manages the consortium and comprises major partner brands like Starbucks, McDonald’s, The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, JDE Peet’s, The Wendy’s Company and Yum! Brands. The report focuses on strengthening existing materials’ recovery and recycling infrastructure systems to recapture more paper cups.

The report provides specific calls to action:

  • Mills are urged to conduct recycling tests on paper cups to determine their feasibility for recovery without negative operational impacts.
  • Materials recovery facilities (MRFs) should conduct material flow studies to identify optimal locations for cup sortation and expand acceptable recycling lists as more mills begin accepting cups.
  • Communities should engage with MRFs and mills to assess the feasibility of including cups in their recyclables list.
  • Consumers are encouraged to use reusable cups whenever possible and to check local recycling options and guidelines when using disposable cups.
  • Brands are called upon to source recycled paper content when procuring cups and other packaging.

“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 landfills or polluting our environment. The NextGen Consortium plays a key role in advancing the innovation, testing and partnerships needed to make this possible.”

woman drinking from a mcdonald's takeaway paper cupPaper cups cups contain high-quality fiber valuable to paper mills.Convenience vs. environmental impact
The report emphasizes the need to enhance existing materials recovery and recycling infrastructure to increase paper cup recovery rates. Recovering and recycling paper cups ensures that the valuable fiber and plastic liner contained in the cups are reused instead of being discarded in landfills. 

“These cups contain high-quality fiber valuable to paper mills as other paper sources like newsprint and office paper decline. While the challenges for paper cup recovery and recycling are significant, collaboration among various stakeholders involved in paper cup recovery can help address its scale and complexity,” the NextGen Consortium details.

The report points out challenges and opportunities, including that only about 11% of communities in the US currently accept paper cups for recycling, limiting recycling options for residents.

Several US cities officially accept paper cups in their recycling programs, and the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) has identified over 30 paper mills accepting paper cups in mixed paper bales, representing 75% of US mixed paper demand.

The NextGen Consortium, in collaboration with FPI and Moore & Associates, identified more than 15 additional mills across North America interested in testing cup acceptance or capable of processing cups, further catalyzing cup acceptance at MRFs and new communities.

The consortium has adopted a “three-pronged approach” to address the issue of paper cup waste, focusing on three main strategies:

  • Advancing reusable cup systems to prolong material lifecycles.
  • Exploring material science innovations for more sustainable cup materials.
  • Strengthening materials recovery and recycling systems to recapture used cups.

“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 yearly. But convenience comes with environmental consequences: The majority of cups end up in landfills today,” they stress.

By Radhika Sikaria

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