March 17

A Dirty Secret

A New Lining Makes Paper Cups Recyclable

In a lot of coffee­houses, the trash has a dirty secret.

No matter how ecologically-minded the owners or clien­tele are, no matter how care­fully the paper coffee cups are sepa­rated from the rest of the garbage, those cups are destined for a land­fill.

According to CNN, some 50 billion paper cups are discarded in the United States each year. The vast majority of these are not recy­cled. The culprit is the inte­rior poly­eth­ylene coating that keeps the liquid from leaking. This coating prevents recy­clers of fiber-based pack­aging from processing the cups, because during the initial pulping, it breaks into flakes that clog filters. The problem is so perva­sive that recy­cling facil­i­ties typi­cally use optical sorters programmed to remove beverage cups from the waste stream and send them on their way to a land­fill.

With the lack of paper cup recy­cling, some coffee­houses have opted to use compostable paper cups. Paper cups are avail­able that are made with a compostable plastic barrier coating, usually plant-based, instead of poly­eth­ylene. But these have their own prob­lems. They're substan­tially more expen­sive than tradi­tional paper cups coated with poly­eth­ylene. In addi­tion, they won’t compost in a home composter. The only reli­able way to make sure they're actu­ally composted is to use these cups in commu­ni­ties with munic­ipal facil­i­ties that support indus­trial composting of pack­aging, which are few and far between.

Coffeehouses in most commu­ni­ties that serve coffee to-go in expen­sive compostable paper cups may have the best inten­tions to limit their impact on the envi­ron­ment, but are, in effect, throwing money out the door.

But a new inte­rior coating mate­rial has the poten­tial to render coffee and other beverage cups as recy­clable as plain paper. Smart Planet Technologies has devel­oped a new paper cup called the reCUP™, which uses a coating mate­rial that can be processed in any existing paper recy­cling equip­ment. Called EarthCoating®, it is made from 51% calcium carbonate and 49% poly­eth­ylene. In terms of both perfor­mance and price, it is no different from a stan­dard all-polyethylene coating. But when it comes to recy­cling, there's a huge differ­ence.

To under­stand the bril­liance of the reCUP solu­tion, it’s impor­tant to review the paper recy­cling process. As with most pack­aging mate­rials, a major chal­lenge of paper recy­cling is the removal of foreign mate­rial as reli­ably and effi­ciently as possible. The first step in recy­cling waste paper is pulping, which breaks the paper down into a pulp of reusable fiber and unde­sir­able substances, meaning pretty much every­thing besides the fiber. This includes dirt, grit, clay, product residue and the plastic inte­rior coating, which breaks up into flakes. The pulp passes through coarse screens that let the fiber pass through, as well as the less-dense unde­sir­able mate­rial, while rejecting mate­rial such as dirt and grit that is heavier than water.

The next step is filtering. The pulp passes through screens that allow the fiber through, as well as small partic­u­lates of unde­sir­able mate­rial, while keeping out large partic­u­lates. The final step is centrifugal cleaning, which sorts the remaining pulp through spin­ning. The fiber, being lighter than water, is sepa­rated into pure pulp, while the heavier-than-water cont­a­m­i­nants, even though they're small partic­u­lates by this point, get spun out and rejected.

This process is highly prob­lem­atic for conven­tional poly­eth­ylene coat­ings. The problem is that the coat­ings tend to break up into rela­tively large flakes that are lighter than water. Being light, they pass through the coarse pulping screens along with the fiber, and as large flakes, they clog the finer screens in the next step. This disrupts the filtering process to the point that recy­cling coated paper cups becomes nearly impos­sible, which is why many paper recy­clers set their sorters to reject them auto­mat­i­cally.

EarthCoating, on the other hand, works perfectly with the conven­tional pulping process, because it differs from poly­eth­ylene coating in two impor­tant ways: The coating breaks into much finer partic­u­lates, and those partic­u­lates are heavier than water. These prop­er­ties ensure that the coating gets shunted out at two crit­ical points in the process: the initial pulping, where heavy partic­u­lates get rejected, and the centrifuging, where any remaining heavy partic­u­lates get spun out. In between, the coating partic­u­lates are fine enough to make it through the filtering screens without clog­ging.

This coating can be used in any of the many pack­aging appli­ca­tions that feature coated paper­board, corru­gated or other fiber-based mate­rial. So you can improve the recy­cla­bility of other coated paper­boards in your coffee­house as well, including coated paper liners and paper­board trays for food items. Your pack­aging distrib­utor can provide reCUPs from paper cup manu­fac­turers that have licensed the reCUP from Smart Planet Technologies.

"Our coating is applic­able to any kind of plastic coating that's being used on a package," says Will Lorenzi, pres­i­dent of Smart Planet Technologies. "Our coating works just as well, looks the same, and costs the same.  The only differ­ence is that the coating won’t inter­fere in the recy­cling, and there­fore cups become a valu­able mate­rial to collect, instead of sending to the land­fill.”

The cups come in the stan­dard coffee-cup sizes: 8, 10, 12, 16 and 20 ounces with matching lids. They are avail­able in single and double-wall versions; the latter are recom­mended for use with cold bever­ages, because they cope better with outer-wall conden­sa­tion. In both single and double-wall versions, these cups have the same poten­tial for printing as a conven­tional cup. Indeed, for all prac­tical purposes, they are indis­tin­guish­able from regular paper coffee cups; the only differ­ence is that they can be recy­cled as easily as any other fiber-based pack­aging.

One of the U.S. customers for the reCUP is Kéan Coffee, with two loca­tions in Southern California.  Kéan Coffee is owned by Martin Diedrich, founder of Diedrich Coffee and a promi­nent figure in the specialty coffee world. “At Kéan Coffee, we believe that busi­nesses large and small bear a respon­si­bility to support issues and model prac­tices that promote greater well-being for the local commu­nity and the global commu­nity,” said Martin. “We are thrilled to intro­duce an inno­va­tion in paper cups that provides the recy­cling industry with a better cup to recycle.”

Other reCUP users include Ellefson Coffee Co., Jackson, Minn., owned by David Ellefson, of the rock band Megadeth; and Orange Coast College, a commu­nity college in Costa Mesa, Calif. The cafe­teria at Orange Coast College serves coffee in reCUPs, and a student-run oper­a­tion collects the cups and turns them over to a recy­cler.

The Orange Coast College setup points out a paradox about the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of recy­cling reCUPs. In theory, they could be included in a load with any recy­clable paper or fiber-based pack­aging, because they pass through the recy­cling process as easily as uncoated paper. But because virtu­ally all recy­clers reject paper beverage cups, for reCUPs to be recy­cled for now, they have to be collected as a segre­gated load and taken to a recy­cler who knows what they are and that they can be processed normally. Since the paper cups process as easily as uncoated paper, the paper cups are valu­able to recycle, providing a new revenue stream for the recy­cling industry. As an example, Orange Coast College is funding a college schol­ar­ship with the profits that have come from recy­cling their reCUPs.

"The first step in solving the paper cup recy­cling problem is to provide the recy­cling industry with a paper cup worth recy­cling,” says Lorenzi.  Theoretically, if all paper coffee and other beverage cups were made with EarthCoating lining, recy­clers could all be included in regular recy­cling streams. Lorenzi, of course, dreams of that day. He points out that most of the bleached-board cup stock in the United States is produced by only a handful of paper mill groups. “If the mills switched over, the whole [cup produc­tion] would switch over, and recy­clers would know that every paper cup is poten­tially recy­clable, prof­itably," he says. "That's where we'd like to get to someday. In the mean­time, we're going to have to collect the cups sepa­rately, but because they're a valu­able mate­rial to collect, it can offset the costs for the service."

A new service called Replenysh offers a way to collect reCUPs on a wider scale. Replenysh, a startup based in Southern California, is a phone app for drivers of trucks that collect recy­clable mate­rials. It can tell them that a given loca­tion has a load of reCUPs ready for pickup and delivery to a partic­i­pating paper recy­cler.

The United Kingdom is ahead of the U.S. when it comes to collecting coffee cups. Simply Cups, a part­ner­ship estab­lished in 2014 between Closed Loop Environmental Solutions and Simply Waste Solutions, exists to collect paper beverage cups from restau­rants and other insti­tu­tions and turn them into recy­cled fiber-based pack­aging mate­rial. Almost all the cups that Simply Cups collects have conven­tional plastic inte­rior coat­ings; Simply Cups takes them to two British recy­cling facil­i­ties that have special equip­ment and processes designed to sepa­rate the coating. However, there are great advan­tages to a cup that can be processed more prof­itably through tradi­tional processes.

Simply Cups recently entered a rela­tion­ship with Smart Planet Technologies to collect reCUPs as sepa­rate loads, which can be resold more prof­itably since the reCUP can be processed with tradi­tional recy­cling equip­ment.  One of Simply Cups's members is Costa Coffee, the largest coffee chain in the UK. Costa is currently conducting a trial of reCUPs.

Recycling has a special reso­nance for coffeehouses—certain ones, at any rate. Many coffee­houses cater to a younger clien­tele that tends to be aware of ecolog­ical issues. This is one of the reasons behind the popu­larity of things like fair trade coffee. A coffee­house that uses reCUPs and educates its customers about the advan­tages of doing so can score points with the ecolog­i­cally conscious. Smart Planet Technologies is working with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition to obtain the optimal recy­cla­bility marks for pack­aging with EarthCoating within its How2Recycle [] program. In addi­tion, in areas where collec­tion drivers use the Replenysh app, coffee­houses and other retailers will have the option of using Replenysh's logo, adding to the green cachet.

Stay tuned for the April issue of Coffee Talk Magazine for an article about other pack­aging appli­ca­tions for EarthCoating linings that are rele­vant to coffee­houses.

To Top