When Reusable Cups Reach End-of-Life: 5 Tips to Ensure They Don’t Go to Waste
October 18, 2023
We know reuse plays a critical part in reducing foodservice packaging waste. And we’ve seen progress and innovation across all types of packaging and foodservice venues, whether cup share programs, reuse at concerts and events, or even for food delivery services. However, for reuse models to be successful and impactful, they need to check a lot of boxes––they have to fit the lifestyle of customers and align with the reality of retail operations to ensure reusable packaging is sufficiently reused. They also have to be recyclable so that they don’t become waste when they end up somewhere other than the return bin at any point in their lifecycle. Whether a reuse program has a 95 percent (terrific!), 75 percent (needs improvement) or 25 percent (look out!) return rate, designing for recyclability is key, especially as more reusable packaging enters the ecosystem. Appropriate end-of-life management is necessary to maximize the intended environmental benefit that reusable products offer.
Since 2018, the NextGen Consortium has been leading efforts to identify the role reuse can play in addressing foodservice packaging waste, alongside material innovation and recovery [see: Bringing Reusable Packaging Systems to Life: Lessons Learned from Scaling Reusable Cups]. In addition to examining the realities of consumer behavior and retail operations when deploying reuse systems, one critical question we recently investigated is: what happens when a reusable cup ends up in the recycling system?
Reusable foodservice packaging is often designed for durability––both in how long it can be reused and how many times it can be washed––but not always for recyclability. As a result, when reusable cups are decommissioned, or end up anywhere but the reuse bin, they inevitably end up in our waste streams. From NextGen’s consumer research, we know that unless disposal options are convenient, these cups will likely end up as waste. Designing reusable packaging for both consistent reuse and eventual recyclability will help increase recovery opportunities and reduce waste to landfill and the environment.
How do we ensure reusable cups do not become waste when they can no longer be reused or end up in a recycling bin rather than a reuse bin?
Testing is key. There are excellent design guidelines, such as APR’s design for recyclability guidelines, to help suppliers ensure their packaging meets the stated needs of the recycling system today. But reusable cups also need to be tested within the recycling process to see if they can be successfully recovered. There are three critical stages of the recycling process:
- Collection: how recyclable materials are collected in residential or commercial waste streams
- Sortation: how a package will flow at a material recycling facility (MRF)
- Reprocessing: how a package aligns with similar materials to be processed and remanufactured into new materials
In early 2023, the NextGen Consortium collaborated with Van Dyk Technology Center to test how a dozen different reusable polypropylene (PP) cups would sort within a MRF and see if they would end up in the correct material bale, in this case PP.
The test mimicked the flow of a typical MRF, followed APR’s sorting guidance and tested how size, compression, 2D and 3D sortation, and near infrared (NIR) sortation impact how well a cup can be sorted. The results were mixed and provide critical design insights for the companies who are manufacturing and deploying reusable cup formats.
The Results: the good, the bad and the unrecyclable.
When designed with recycling in mind, a reusable PP cup should successfully sort into the correct bale at a MRF. In our tests, the top four best performing cup models were sorted correctly more than 90 percent of the time. The test ran 50 samples of each cup through four separate runs so that each cup model ran through the facility 200 times. The results are no coincidence: successful sortability was driven by specific factors, including color, shape, opacity, thickness and material composition. The highest performing cups were typically opaque, thin and rigid but had some flexibility or bounce, and were all read clearly by the optical sensors of the sortation equipment. Cups that performed poorly, sorting less than 50 percent of the time (or sometimes not at all), often were more translucent than their successful counterparts. Overall, while only four of the cups achieved successful sortation (and a fifth cup was borderline), simple design corrections can improve the fate of the others.
Design Tips: Making recyclability a priority for reusable PP cups.
The Van Dyk sortation test gave a window into what happens to various types of reusable PP cups traveling through a MRF. However, this only assessed one step in the recycling process––sortation––and does not confirm compatibility with reclamation systems nor prove that the cup can be recycled effectively into a new package. Additional testing is needed to confirm assumptions that reusable PP cups are truly circular. For now, reusable foodservice packaging companies and suppliers can design with sortation in mind and improve end-of-life outcomes by considering the following:
- Follow the design guidelines created by APR and other groups: There are many resources available online to help packaging designers/suppliers ensure greater compatibility with the recycling system. For plastic packaging, the APR Design® Guide is a great place to start.
- Avoid all black plastics: While there have been technological advancements to help sort black plastics, most MRFs do not possess that technology. Both opaque and translucent black packaging is problematic and reusable cup manufacturers should design cups with today’s system in mind. If black is absolutely required, use an NIR sortable black colorant. Colorants that have passed APR testing can be found on APR’s website here.
- Not all polypropylene is equal: PP is a wide class of material. PP sorters in the recycling process are designed to detect and separate PP that is common to single-use plastic such as tubs and lids; however, other PP grades may not be as easily identified.It is critical to engage with your cup suppliers and test if needed to confirm compatibility.
- Mono materials (cups made of just one material) are best: A reusable cup that is multi-material (i.e., part plastic, part fiber, part silicone, etc.) is simply not compatible with today’s recycling system. Cups designed to be in a high-volume sharing system should be made of a singular material and avoid too many add-ons. Cups with ridges (i.e., a built-in sleeve) may also impede sortation; however, it does not appear that those design features are overly detrimental.
- Think twice before adding tech: Tracking systems are typically needed to assess the impact of a reuse system and enable traceability, but features such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags need to be evaluated further for their impact on the recycling system. While an RFID tag is unlikely to hinder a package’s sortability, it might impact whether a material can be reclaimed or recycled. APR’s guidance lists RFID tags as “detrimental,” and the NextGen team is investigating the impact this technology has on the system.
When in doubt, TEST.
Despite widely available design guidance, reusable packaging that is not compatible with today’s recycling system continues to be manufactured. The conversation needs to be more nuanced and shift from only discussing designing for durability and the number of washes a package can withstand, to the realities of how the packaging will actually be used and travel through a system. Most reusable wares in an open system would be lucky to hit 40 reuses (which would assume a >95% return rate)! Sortation and recovery testing can help provide reusable foodservice packaging companies with additional peace of mind and ensure that their packaging has a better chance of staying out of landfill.
The NextGen team looks forward to continuing this journey to study and test optimal conditions for reusable packaging to succeed and achieve a positive environmental impact within a circular economy.