Why it’s so hard to recycle coffee cups—and why that’s finally startin

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Have you ever stood in front of the trash can with your Starbucks cup and wondered whether to toss it in the garbage or in the recycling bin? You’re not alone. Until recently, the right answer has often been the trash. Disposable coffee cups, milk cartons, takeout boxes, and other food packaging has a plastic lining to make sure liquids and oils don’t seep through. But most recycling systems in the U.S. aren’t designed to process these plastic-coated containers: The plastic can jam up recycling machines, and if the plastic somehow makes it through the process, paper mills won’t be able to use it.

All of this is about to change. The recycled paper industry in the United States is redesigning its systems to salvage the paper from these containers, then sanitize and recycle it. This couldn’t come at a better time. Since the pandemic started, curbside recycling has increased 7% while office paper recycling has dramatically decreased. At the same time, Americans have been ordering more food to their homes, making it even more crucial to find a recycling solution for these plastic-lined containers.

[Photo: Georgia Pacific]

Georgia-Pacific, which collects approximately 6 million tons of paper products a year, is equipping two of its 14 facilities to be able to separate the paper from plastic. Three years ago, it invested $45 million to put this technology in place in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Muskogee, Oklahoma, installing a filter in its pulping machine that removes the polyethylene plastic from the paper. It then sends the paper through the regular recycled paper stream, where it appears in Georgia-Pacific’s products, such as paper towels for restaurants and toilet rolls for commercial buildings.

This filtering technology isn’t new. A smaller outfit called Pratt Recycling has been doing it for several years, but it’s taken longer for big players like Georgia-Pacific partly because it’s expensive to retool their infrastructure, which is often larger and older. “Our Green Bay mill is close to 100 years old,” says John Mulcahy, Georgia-Pacific’s VP of sustainability. “You don’t make these large investments unless there is a pretty good justification and return.”

And up until recently, there hasn’t been the promise of a return on investment. The price of mixed paper in the United States had fallen to an all-time low over the last few years, as China stopped accepting many recycled materials from the U.S., and American mills avoided it because it was too contaminated. This put too much mixed paper on the market, driving down the price, but ultimately making it a more affordable raw material. That’s partly why Georgia-Pacific began investing in the technology. “We saw the trends in the reduction in exports to China and the increase in residential collection, which made us comfortable with making these investments,” says Mulcahy.

[Image: Georgia Pacific]

The pandemic has further increased the demand for mixed paper from curbside recycling; with offices and schools closed, the amount of discarded office paper has fallen. At the same time, the coronavirus has necessitated more online shopping, which means more recycled cardboard boxes. These boxes actually make mixed paper more valuable because they strengthen the pulp. But for recycling centers to take more mixed paper and make this process more efficient, they had to figure out what to do with the polyethylene plastic in so many of the paper products. That’s where Georgia-Pacific’s earlier investment started to bear fruit.

All of these shifts has meant that the price of mixed paper has gone from $0 at the start of 2020 to $30 a ton in November. Experts told The Wall Street Journal that this will likely continue to rise as more mills upgrade their pulping operations to process more mixed paper.

Still, many of these changes are rolling out unevenly, and whether you can recycle plastic-coated paper products likely depends on where you live and what company your city uses. Mulcahy says that the two Georgia-Pacific mills equipped with the new technology only source from a 150-mile radius, so it could be awhile before people across the country can recycle their plastic-coated containers. Heidi Brock, president and CEO of trade group American Forest & Paper Association, urges communities to upgrade their recycling programs, but just as importantly to invest in, “clearing up any confusion regarding the recyclability of paper-based products.”

Still, these recent innovations seem to indicate that the industry is at least moving in the right direction. And even if some of the COVID-19-era shifts aren’t permanent, the new infrastructure will likely stay in place, according to Mulcahy. “Even if the market changes, we’re still well positioned to continue to use the material from curbside recycling programs going forward,” he says. This means we can all look toward a future where we can throw our Starbucks cups into the recycling bin without having to think twice.



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