While innovative materials and design are central to the NextGen Consortium’s ambition to address single-use foodservice packaging waste globally, the end-of-life recovery of packaging––including to-go fiber cups––through recycling and composting infrastructure is equally important. Alignment with collection, sortation & processing systems and end markets is critical to create pathways for recovery and eliminate waste to landfill.

Given the inconsistency of regional recycling regulations and the diversity of recovery infrastructure, closing the loop on foodservice packaging requires an understanding of the current infrastructure landscape, best practices and stakeholders at every step of the value chain.

For NextGen Cup, as part of our assessment of the best path forward for a more widely recyclable or compostable fiber cup, we mapped the current journey of the cup and interviewed key cup manufacturers, waste collectors, materials recovery facilities (MRFs), municipalities, paper mills and other value chain stakeholders to gather expert insights on the state of cup recycling and composting, challenges and opportunities.

Cup Recovery Infrastructure Highlights

“Ensuring the recyclability of cups can only be accomplished when industry partners work together to address not only the materials and design of products, but also the end-of-life recovery of packaging. Products cannot be truly recyclable until they are widely accepted by communities, processed effectively at recycling facilities and used as a feedstock by paper mills. We look forward to continued collaboration to accomplish this goal.”
Natha Dempsey – President • Foodservice Packaging Institute

The Current Journey of the Cup

While fiber cups are technically recyclable, in many markets, you can’t recycle them. Even in markets where you can, many cups don’t find their way through the proper channels and even when they do, you still have to manage the leftover PE cup liner, present in most current cup formats. In practice, the vast majority of fiber cups end up in landfills today. Consumers are confused as to the proper disposal method (it varies from place-to-place), MRFs are deterred by the lack of volume of cups entering their facilities and some paper mills are concerned about potential contamination of their recycled paper stream. The inconsistencies and spatial gaps across the recovery infrastructure result in too many cups finding their way to landfill––wasted. 

We want to change that. By connecting upstream product and service innovation to downstream recovery infrastructure, and focusing on understanding and integrating new cup solutions within existing recovery systems, we can keep the valuable fiber in the cup in circulation.

The six participating cup companies in our NextGen Circular Business Accelerator all ran their new cup solutions through MRFs to see first-hand what happens to their cups at end-of-use. They also explored the value of their cup materials post-processing to better understand the market incentives for recycling or composting, which are ultimately driven by end markets.

The Future Journey of the Cup

Through the NextGen Consortium’s integrated, holistic approach to aligning product design with infrastructure, together, we can achieve a waste-free future journey of the cup in which materials are continuously cycled and the emphasis on the extraction of raw materials is reduced. In this setting, the materials in cups continue their lifecycle and we move closer to achieving circularity.