Recycling Renegade

Photo: Sustana

One of the most commonly cited reasons to explain why we have so many single-use paper cups filling up landfills is that it’s difficult and expensive to recycle the cups due to the plastic coating that prevents the paper from getting soggy. Starbucks took it upon itself to prove that idea wrong.

In a story Fast Company reported last week, the company took 25 million excess inventory cups that were otherwise destined for the landfill and brought them to Sustana, a paper mill in Wisconsin, to demonstrate that paper cups can be recycled cost-effectively.

Sustana used a process that mixes water with the old cups and grinds them using a seven-foot-tall corkscrew, and then screened and washed to fully separate the fiber from the plastic lining. The fibers were then made into sheets and sent to WestRock packaging company to be made into paperboard. A third company, Sera, printed the paperboard with Starbucks’ logo and shaped into new cups.

“The ultimate vision of the Starbucks sustain partnership is to provide a full, closed-loop, zero-waste solution,” says Fabian de Armas, chairman and CEO of Sustana.

The pilot program’s success is being used to demonstrate the proof of concept and encourage more mills to accept paper cups.

“We hope this project will convince more mills across the country to be open to accepting paper cups in their recycle streams, a required step to scaling the operation to more municipal recycling service programs,” says Rebecca Zimmer, Starbucks’ global director of environment.