Starbucks, others search for perfect recyclable cup
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By Jim Johnson | WRN senior reporter

Sept. 27 — There is no silver bullet on Starbucks Coffee Co.´s years-long journey to find a widespread way to recycle all of those disposable cups the company dispenses each year.

The Seattle-based coffee company has been eyeing a 2015 target of finding a way to recycle its paper cups, a goal that´s complicated by the cups´ polyethylene liner.

With that in mind, the company convened what it called its third annual “cup summit” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a gathering that brought together more than 100 stakeholders interested in finding a solution.

The summit attracted Starbucks competitors such as Tim Hortons and McDonald´s, as well as companies along the cup supply chain. Action Carting Environmental Services Inc., a solid waste management company that handles used cups collected through a pilot recycling effort in New York City, even was there.

“It´s really interesting that when we started this recycled cup process, the first thing we jump to, and the first solution we jumped to, is what can we make this cup out of that will make this cup recyclable?” said Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact for Starbucks. “What is the silver bullet? What is the perfect material out there that we can make this cup out of that will make this cup recyclable?

“And we quickly discovered that there is no perfect cup. There is no perfect solution out there,” he said.

“The infrastructure for recycling is what really needs to exist and the customer´s ability to actually recycle our cups,” Hanna said during a webcast panel discussion at the cup summit.

But that goal is complicated by the cups´ plastic liner, which can be considered a contaminant in the paper recycling processes.

So Starbucks has been embarking on a series of pilot projects in recent years aimed at proving the cups can be successfully mixed with other paper and recycled into new products.

It was late last year that Starbucks said it achieved an important milestone by proving its cups could be recycled into new paper cups in a pilot project that included International Paper Co. and Mississippi River Pulp LLC. This cup-to-cup project was developed following last year´s second cup summit.

Another pilot project, in conjunction with Georgia-Pacific, is turning used cups into new napkins.

Peter Senge, a senior lecturer at MIT who has been involved with the cup summit since its beginnings, is known for his work in systems thinking, a way to solve problems by considering how a system´s segments are interconnected.

“You can just feel the energy,” he said, as more and more players get involved in the recycled cup project. “The idea that all of these at some point will wind up some place in a usable form and not in a landfill is a pretty wild idea. It´s great to be on the journey.”

Hanna also called the work toward finding recycling solutions a “cup journey” and said his company will not claim success until there is an opportunity for every cup, no matter where it travels, to be recycled.

“It´s a tough process. It´s a long process. It´s a complicated process. But it´s one that we´re seeing more and more momentum from the entire industry getting behind this process and getting involved,” Hanna said.

“Our goal is by 2015 every cup out there that is generated is recycled. When we talk about recycling, for us, it really means that you as a customer or you as a stakeholder, when you are done enjoying this great beverage, wherever you may happened to be, whether it´s in your home, whether it´s in one of our Starbucks stores, whether it´s in your office or even in a public space or a park, that you have the opportunity at that place to recycle your cup,” Hanna said.

“Until that point, we´re not going to claim success. And we´re not going to say that our cup is recyclable until we know that you actually have the opportunity to recycle those cups,” he said.

Contact Waste & Recycling News senior reporter Jim Johnson at jpjohnson@crain.com or 937-964-1289.

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