Starbucks’ ambitious goal to have 100 percent of its cups be reusable or recyclable by 2015 may have just gotten much easier. The company announced a successful test with paper cup manufacturer International Paper and pulp mill Mississippi River Pulp that used recycled cups from stores to create new cups.

The six-week pilot test was the result of an idea brewed up at the company’s second Cup Summit, held earlier this year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Our goal is to find ways for our existing cup to fit into existing recycling systems without the systems having to invest millions of dollars in new capital or new processes or anything like that,” says Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact for Starbucks.

“That’s one of the most exciting parts about this latest milestone, is that we proved that our cups could fit into an existing system at the Mississippi River corporation.”

While several pulp mills around the country can help turn a recycled paper cup into various paper products, like paper towels, napkins, and office paper—Starbucks is doing such tests in Chicago, New York, and Ontario—Mississippi River is the only mill in the country that can turn a cup into a food or beverage packaging product.

“What we have is the unique capability of eliminating the optical brighteners that are typically in the waste paper stream,” says Rob Garland, CEO of Mississippi River, of the mill’s “de-inking” capability. “You have to eliminate those if you want FDA-quality pulp that can go into food and beverage contact uses.”

The pulp created by Mississippi River is shipped to International Paper, which uses 90 percent virgin fiber and 10 percent post-consumer fiber to create new Starbucks cups, says Greg Wanta, vice president of International Paper Foodservice, the largest manufacturer of Starbucks paper cups.  

Though the infrastructure is still not present nationally to take a program like this system-wide, Hanna says proving a process like this works helps encourage other recycling plants—and retailers—to follow suit.

“Once we’re able to demonstrate that there are paper mills our there that will readily purchase this product from them, and that they’ve really broken down all of the perceived barriers to recycling, then the infrastructure will really fall into place,” he says.

Wanta says the discovery that recycled cups can be used to create new cups was a huge victory for Starbucks and its 2015 goal, a goal that International Paper has been assisting with since it was established two years ago.

“Now all the naysayers who were there in the supply chain who were saying, ‘It can’t be done,’ now they’re minds are going to start to change,” he says. “Being able to scale this up by 2015, with all of the infrastructure issues, is a major, bold, stretch initiative, but it’s going to have its challenges.”

Indeed, Hanna acknowledges that there is still a long way to go before Starbucks can achieve its goal. But this latest step in the process of making its cups totally reusable or recyclable by 2015 was one that he calls a “natural progression.”

“We’ve identified a path that we need to be on to get to 2015, and it will consist of a lot of baby steps and a lot of giant leaps,” he says. “The big giant leaps will be getting entire large cities on board to create the recycling infrastructure to segregate out cups, not just from Starbucks, but from all retailers in the cities. That will really be our next giant leap.”

By Sam Oches

Beverage, News, Sustainability, Starbucks