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Starbucks Closes The Loop and Recycles Their Cups in Partnership With Sustana

by Bill McCool on 11/07/2018 | 4 Minute Read

An estimated 600 billion paper and plastic cups are dispensed globally every year.

That’s your local coffee shop, McDonald’s, and basically anywhere in the world that sells you a hot or cold beverage. By their own admission, Starbucks makes up about 1% of that total, and while that feels like a relatively small amount, as soon as you start throwing around the word billion, shit gets really real pretty fast.

We’ve spilled an enormous amount of internet ink on our own pages about Starbucks’ failure to develop a fully recyclable or compostable cup. And we get it. There’s no easy solution, especially when you need the cup’s polyethylene liner to keep your hot beverage inside the actual cup and not in your lap.

So why is that the case? First off, collection systems are inconsistent, and most sorting centers don’t have the resources to separate the cups from the waste stream, hence why a good chunk of those iconic Starbucks cups are destined for your local landfill. Secondly, recycling mills need specialized equipment to remove the polyethylene liner so they can access the paper fiber in the cup.

But here’s the thing—you can actually recycle that cup.

This past year, Starbucks was having one of their shareholder meetings, and they had about 18 truckloads of used, paper cups that they wanted to recycle and turn into brand new cups. This proof-of-concept project was shared this past September at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) Conference in Boston by Starbucks and some of their supply chain partners like Jay Hunsberger, VP of Sales Recycled Fibers at Sustana.

With their two paper mills, Sustana has a way of taking mixed office papers and other objects—like a paper Starbucks cup—and turning it into food-grade packaging fibers, environmentally friendly printing paper, and recycled fibers. They work in conjunction with local buyers, sorters, and collectors of this waste with the goal of turning them back into a pulp used in order to make new paper.

“We liberate the fiber to pursue another life,” Jay jokes. Currently, Sustana makes up about 10% of the paperboard Starbucks uses today.

“We had a six-to-eight-week window, to get the cups to us, get it in the system, get the pulp made, and ship it down to WestRock,” says Jay. “Then WestRock makes the paper and then ships those rolls up to Seda for printing to get them out to the Starbucks meeting and get them unpacked.” It was a highly coordinated effort by all members of their supply chain, but the actual process itself sounds so uncomplicated that you’re probably scratching your head and wondering why this wasn't already happening.

Once the cups were collected and brought to Sustana’s paper mill, they are mixed with water and undergo a high-consistency pulping process where the cups are grounded into a pulp using a massive corkscrew rotor. Those fibers are then thickened using a dewatering process and cut into sheets. Once baled, they’re shipped to WestRock and transformed into large rolls of Starbucks cup stock. Finally, they are sent to Seda where they not only shape the cup but print the logo you know and love on the outside.

The Cup to Cup challenge resulted in the recycling of 25 million cups, turning them into brand-new, clean food-grade cups. And while all of the involved players deserve a pat on the back, the real kicker here is you have to have the collection systems to accumulate this feedstock.

“By us broadcasting that we can do this, maybe we challenge local paper mills and other people to do that as well,” Jay says. “So part of this is we’re trying to educate and not necessarily create more business for us. We want to demonstrate that a cellulosic substrate has a lot of benefits over something else.”

It’s an impactful and innovative move, but it’s one that has to be replicated at a much larger scale, and that takes buy-in across the entire supply chain as well as collection centers. It’s why Starbucks has signed on with McDonald’s for the NextGen Cup Challenge and are seeking out solutions for single-use food packaging waste.

“At some point, sustainability will just be substituted with quality again,” Jay says. “Nobody thinks about organic foods anymore and thinks that that’s not the norm. You expect someone not to put a harmful pesticide in your food.”

“If I’m going to buy your good,” he adds, “I have to do something else with that thing. If you can’t, then maybe your product isn’t something people should buy.”

Every brand wants in on the sustainability game, whether that means making a fully recyclable paper cup or something you can toss in your home composting bin—their customers demand that. And while your Starbucks cups is most likely bound for a landfill, the Closing the Loop partnership is a vital and much-needed first step.