The NextGen Consortium, an industry collaboration managed by Closed Loop Partners, with partner brands including Starbucks, McDonald’s, The Coca-Cola Company, and PepsiCo, has released a report with new findings to accelerate paper cup recycling in the US.

The report, Closing the Loop on Cups: Collective Action to Advance the Recovery of Paper Cups in the US, assesses the role of each stakeholder across the paper cup recovery value chain––including paper mills, materials recovery facilities (MRFs), brands, consumers, and local communities.

The NextGen Consortium has taken a three-pronged approach to address cup waste holistically:

  • Advancing reusable cup systems that keep materials in circulation for multiple uses
  • Exploring material science innovation that enhances the sustainability and recoverability of cup materials
  • Strengthening materials recovery and recycling infrastructure that recaptures cups after use

NextGen’s view on the opportunities and challenges of paper cup recycling

The report emphasises that while the challenges for paper cup recovery and recycling are significant, collaboration among various stakeholders involved in paper cup recovery can help address its scale and complexity.

Today, only about 11% of communities reportedly accept cups in their recycling operations. This poses a significant barrier to cup recycling, as residents have few options to properly recycle their used cups.

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While only a handful of cities in the US are officially accepting cups in their recycling programs, the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) identified more than 30 paper mills that accept paper cups in mixed paper bales representing 75% of US mixed paper demand, and an additional five mills accepting cups in carton bales. These mills are taking recovered paper materials, including cups, and reprocessing them into new products.

In 2023, the NextGen Consortium, in collaboration with FPI and Moore & Associates, identified more than 15 additional mills across North America that are interested in testing cup acceptance or that can process cups today. This new interest is highlighted as an endorsement and potential catalyst for cup acceptance at MRFs and in new communities in the future.

What can stakeholders do to improve paper cup recycling?

The report asserts that mills can conduct recycling tests on paper cups to determine if the fibre can be captured without any negative operational impacts at their facilities.

MRFs should also conduct material flow studies to determine where best to site interventions for cup sortation and to collaborate with mills and communities to expand acceptable recycling lists as more mills accept cups, according to the report.

Meanwhile, communities can engage with MRFs and mills to evaluate the feasibility of adding cups to accepted recyclables list. Consumers are being called on to bring their own reusable cups when they can and to check local recyclability options and guidance when using disposable cups.

Finally, brands are advised to source recycled paper content when procuring their cups and other packaging.