How a South Carolina paper mill started recycling your paper coffee cups: A spotlight on Sonoco and its recycling tests with the NextGen Consortium
September 26, 2023
In July 2022, Sonoco announced it would accept paper cups in bales of mixed paper at its paper mill in Hartsville, South Carolina. The NextGen Consortium supported cup trials with Sonoco. Below, we discuss with Scott Byrne, Director, Global Sustainability Services at Sonoco how the organization made this decision and what considerations companies might want to take when exploring the recyclability of different types of packaging.
This work represents part of a forthcoming report on paper cup recovery in the United States intended for release in late fall.
Scott Byrne, Director, Global Sustainability Services at Sonoco
1. Who is Sonoco and what are you focused on?
Sonoco is a South Carolina-based global packaging company with more than 20 mills worldwide. Among our packaging products, we manufacture rigid paper cans, steel cans, thermoformed plastics and other packaging formats. Sonoco is uniquely positioned as a leading recycler, paper mill operator and paper packaging converter, in addition to other formats, to help push the industry to look towards future innovations and grow end-of-life solutions across the entire paper value chain.
2. How do you typically approach recycling of new products at your mills?
After validating that our mills could recycle rigid paper cans in residential mixed paper, we decided to further demonstrate the ability to recycle other similar polycoated fiber-based containers through the post-consumer mixed paper stream.
3. Where do you currently accept paper cups?
Hartsville, South Carolina. and we are exploring other Sonoco mills as well that use residential mixed paper.
4. What are some of the steps you took to determine that accepting cups wouldn’t create new challenges for your mill?
With support from the NextGen Consortium, we conducted two main activities to assess how cups might behave. First, we conducted lab-based testing of both single- and double-sided poly-coated fiber cups. Second, and after we were confident that the cups would not pose any issues to our equipment, we ran a large-scale trial whereby we dosed in nearly 20 tons of cupstock and cups into our pulper alongside other mixed paper, increasing the volume relative to other materials to test the system and upper bounds of materials we’d anticipate receiving if we accepted cups. Based on those results we felt confident that cups could be included in our accepted materials list and we were thrilled to have the mill listed alongside others on Foodservice Packaging Institute’s end market map of mills that accept cups.
5. What about your other paper mills?
Before we broadly accept cups at more of our mills, we’d want to distill our findings from the Hartsville location and consider any additional steps those mills would need to take to feel confident in accepting cups. This might include additional lab-and mill-based trials.
6. Any advice you’d give to other mills considering including cups?
Every mill is slightly different, from their equipment to operating conditions to inbound material mix. Testing to those conditions is a key proof point in determining what might work best in that location.
7. What’s next for Sonoco in its efforts to improve polycoated paper recycling?
Sonoco is a founding member of the Polycoated Paper Alliance that kicked-off in March 2023, which aims to increase widespread end-market acceptance of polycoated paper packaging products. We are collaborating with like-minded member brands and industry leaders on developing improved and harmonized data, updated design guidelines, expanded end market acceptance and upgraded mill specifications, among other initiatives.