Collective action to advance the recovery of paper cups in the U.S.

To-go paper cups are ubiquitous, everyday items that we all interact with. They are also a highly visible representation of our disposable, take-make-waste culture. Every year, we use an estimated 250 billion cups globally—the majority of which end up in landfills after a single-use. In this report, we focus on paper cup recovery, by assessing critical nodes of the paper cup recovery value chain—paper mills, material recovery facilities, brands, consumers and local communities—to demonstrate how, together, these stakeholders can sustain a market for paper cup recycling. Each has a unique and critical role to play in enabling cup recycling.


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What’s the challenge with paper cups?

Every day, millions of people around the world drink from paper cups, also known as fiber cups. Most of these single-use cups are made of paper with a plastic-based liner or coating that helps prevent leaking and retain heat or cold for the beverage. Typically, the liner is made of polyethylene (PE) plastic. While the PE-liner has historically been cited as an impediment to widespread recyclability, as this report will explore, there is increased momentum around recycling cups and proven value in doing so.

What’s the landscape for paper cup recovery in the U.S. today?

Paper recycling has long been successful in the U.S. According to The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), in 2022, more than 50 million tons of paper were recovered for recycling in the U.S.—this represents a recycling rate of roughly 68%. Nearly half of recycled paper in 2022 was converted into containerboard, which is used to make cardboard boxes, while other recycled paper is used for products such as tissue, cups, boxboard and newsprint, among other categories.

While paper cups are a relatively small percentage of the total waste stream by volume, they are a highly visible waste item with the majority ending up in landfill today. A growing number of food and beverage brands and retailers are motivated to find recycling solutions for the single-use cup.

Who are the key stakeholders in recovering paper cups today?