Paper Cup Recycling Hits New Milestone in the U.S. With Increased Cup Acceptance at Over 40 Paper Mills

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May 07, 2024

The NextGen Consortium and Foodservice Packaging Institute join forces to help more mills accept cups and reduce waste––with more on the way!

May 7, 2024, New York, NY — Today, the NextGen Consortium, an industry collaboration managed by the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, joined the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) in announcing a major milestone in paper cup recycling in the U.S. Multiple paper mills, from Georgia to Wisconsin, have announced that they will now accept single-use polyethylene (PE)-coated paper cups in bales of mixed paper or polycoat cartons and aseptic packaging. This brings the total number of North American mills accepting paper cups to more than 40, marking significant progress as demand for recycled fiber content grows in the U.S., amidst increasing sustainability commitments and policy tailwinds. The new mills to accept cups include Newman and Company, Inc., Philadelphia, PA; PaperWorks Industries, Wabash, IN; Resolute Forest Products, Menominee Mill, MI; Greif Mill Group in Austell, GA and Milwaukee, WI, among others listed in FPI’s end market map.

Every year, an estimated 250 billion cups are used globally—the majority of which end up in landfills after a single-use. Historically, paper cups had been deemed ‘unrecyclable’ because of their plastic lining, resulting in low recovery rates and valuable materials ending up in landfill. In recent years, as mills compete for diminishing supplies of newspapers and office paper in the recycling system, there has been growing interest in opportunities to recover material categories that contain high-quality fiber, such as paper cups. Many mills––especially new and retrofitted builds––have undertaken repulpability studies to determine whether they can successfully recover the valuable fiber from coated paper packaging, such as fiber cups, for use in recycled fiber products. Positive outcomes of the studies have led to higher acceptance of fiber cups at mills. According to FPI, the dozens of paper mills that now accept paper cups in mixed paper bales represent more than 75 percent of U.S. mixed paper processing demand.

By accepting recovered paper materials, including cups, and reprocessing them into new products, mills play a pivotal role in advancing the larger paper cup recovery process. As more mills effectively recover fiber from paper cups, cup recycling is incentivized further upstream in materials recovery facilities (MRFs) and communities looking to improve their waste diversion efforts. While only 11 percent of communities in the U.S. officially accept cups in their residential recycling programs today, the increasing number of mills that accept cups signals a greater opportunity to grow cup recycling efforts.

“Alongside advancing reuse and material innovation, strengthening paper cup recovery and recycling is critical to keeping cups from going to waste in landfills,” said Kate Daly, Managing Director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners. “Paper mills play a critical role in strengthening end markets for cups. By pulling materials through the system, mills accepting cups can drive increased cup processing in recycling facilities and cup collection in communities. We are thrilled to see cup recovery reach this important milestone in the United States, moving us closer to a waste-free future.”

For several years, the NextGen Consortium and Foodservice Packaging Institute have collaborated to strengthen existing materials recovery and recycling infrastructure to recapture more paper cups. Both organizations have released critical reports and research to guide paper cup recovery and recycling, such as NextGen’s report Closing the Loop on Cups and FPI’s White Paper on the The State of Paper Cup Recycling. While the challenges are significant, collaboration among various stakeholders involved in paper cup recovery can help address its scale and complexity.

“We are thrilled to work with a growing set of mills in their efforts to recover poly-coated paper cups,” says Natha Dempsey, President of FPI. “Reliable and responsible end markets for cups catalyze new opportunities for community partnerships, especially in regions that previously didn’t have the capability to recycle them.”

“The mix of recovered paper we receive has changed dramatically over the last several years, now including much more plastic that we have to separate in the repulping process. Paper cups contain good fiber and are no more difficult to recycle than many of the other prominent packaging categories we see today. We look forward to the value it will bring to our outputs at our mills in Austell, GA and Milwaukee, WI,” said Jeff Hilkert, VP Paperboard Sales of Greif Mill Group.”

In addition to working with the mills that are now accepting cups, the NextGen Consortium and FPI continue to work with several other interested mills to run studies that can help determine the viability of paper cups in their system. Furthermore, they are also working with groups up and down the value chain––including brands, MRFs and communities––to ensure more cups can be recycled, especially where viable and robust end markets exist. This collaborative work is a key step forward in increasing the supply of recycled content to meet growing demand, and reducing the amount of valuable materials being sent to landfill.

About the NextGen Consortium
The NextGen Consortium is a multi-year consortium that addresses single-use food packaging waste by advancing the design, commercialization and recovery of food packaging alternatives. The NextGen Consortium is managed by Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy. Starbucks and McDonald’s are the founding partners of the Consortium, with The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo as sector lead partners. JDE Peet’s, Wendy’s and Yum! Brands are supporting partners. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is the environmental advisory partner. Learn more at www.nextgenconsortium.com.

About the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners

The Center for the Circular Economy is the innovation arm of Closed Loop Partners, a firm at the forefront of building the circular economy. The Center executes research and analytics, unites organizations to tackle complex material challenges and implements systemic change that advances the circular economy. The Center for the Circular Economy’s expertise spans circularity across the full lifecycle of materials, connecting upstream innovation to downstream recovery infrastructure and end markets. Learn more about the Center for the Circular Economy at closedlooppartners.com/the-center/ 

About the Foodservice Packaging Institute
Founded in 1933, the Foodservice Packaging Institute is the trade association for the foodservice packaging industry in North America. FPI promotes the value and benefits of foodservice packaging and plays an active role in advancing the recovery of FSP to support the circular economy. The association serves as the industry’s leading authority to educate and influence stakeholders. Members include raw material and machinery suppliers, manufacturers, distributors and purchasers of foodservice packaging. For more information, visit www.FPI.org.

How a South Carolina Paper Mill Started Recycling Your Paper Coffee Cups

By Daniel Liswood, Senior Project Director at the Center for the Circular Economy in conversation with Scott Byrne, Director, Global Sustainability Services at Sonoco

September 26, 2023

A spotlight on Sonoco and its recycling tests with the NextGen Consortium

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.