It’s common to see people on the way to work with their coffee cups, which accumulates even more during this pandemic period where people can’t reuse customers’ mugs.
“While their customers enjoy the benefits that food service packaging offers, whether it’s hygiene or convenience, we hear from consumers that there is a level of guilt associated with the single-use nature of the product,” said John Mulcahy, vice president of sustainability at Georgia -Pacific, a pulp and paper company owned by Koch Industries. “And we are responding with a solution.”
According to a survey done by the Foodservice Packaging Institute, estimates that up to 99 percent of disposable paper cups end up in a landfill. The Georgia-Pacific team saw an opportunity to transform this wasted material, because around 90% of the material produced by Georgia-Pacific, 80% of it can be recycled.
Of course, recycling disposable paper cups is not that easy, as they are usually coated with polyethylene (PE), which is a thin layer of plastic that prevents liquid from penetrating the cup, making the paper unrecyclable.
“The equipment was not aggressive enough to break the cups and separate the bonds between the PE and the fiber,” explains Dean Wesolowski, fiber operations manager at Georgia-Pacific’s Broadway plant in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Georgia-Pacific invested $36 million in new pulping technology with enhanced recycling capabilities, including paper varieties in the year 2016. “It was a turning point,” says John. The new pulpers offer several benefits, such as the ability to handle more tons of mixed paper and capture more fiber per ton, generating less waste goes to landfills. A team of Georgia-Pacific engineers, operators and environmental managers worked together to confirm whether the new pulping equipment could also better separate PE from paper cup fiber during the recycling process.
“Typically, paper cups represent only about 1 to 2 percent of the total volume of a recycling bale,” says Dean. “In our tests, our enhanced pulping process can handle cups with up to 10 percent of the total volume. It was a successful validation of our equipment. This process can recycle disposable paper cups contained in mixed paper bales into new napkins, paper towels or tissues within 24 hours from the time they are delivered to the plant in mixed paper bales.
Georgia-Pacific has been recycling paper since the 1930s. As one of the largest paper recyclers in the country, the company has a constant need for used fiber to recycle into new paper products and the know-how to do so. Combined with consumer desire to recycle disposable paper cups, an overall declining trend in waste printing paper (fueled in part by the global pandemic) and a decrease in mixed waste paper purchases in China, the newly discovered ability to recycle coated PE cups expands the supply of reusable paper material.
“The company’s investment in the Green Bay plant’s recycling capabilities has turned paper cups into a usable fiber source that can be recycled instead of something that ends up in landfills,” adds Dean.
Georgia-Pacific can now process up to 700 tons of mixed paper per day at its Green Bay facility alone and is expanding those capabilities to its plants in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and Savannah, Georgia. “In Green Bay, mixed paper recycling is just one part of the ongoing sustainability investments at the 102-year-old facility,” said Michael Kawleski, public relations manager for Georgia-Pacific. “The recent installation of a second natural gas boiler has dramatically reduced air emissions by eliminating coal as an energy source, and an on-site wastewater treatment plant allows the plant to reuse stormwater and manufacturing process water.”
With more robust recycling resources, Georgia-Pacific has decided to educate consumers to put disposable paper cups in the trash can. An environmental group called The Recycling Partnership – which supplies blue cans to homes in the Green Bay area – helped communicate the news to the community that their PE-coated travel cups can now be recycled. And municipal materials recycling facilities (or MRFs), which collect, sort and package recyclable materials into bales before they are sent to the plant, have begun processing the disposable paper cups.
The response from Georgia-Pacific’s Starbucks and McDonald’s customers has also promised that more paper cups will be recycled instead of going to landfills.
“We are taking a significant step forward with Georgia-Pacific toward our goal of reducing paper cup waste ‘Michael Kobori, director of sustainability at Starbucks, shared. We are excited by this progress and look forward to our continued partnering with organizations that support our vision of a resource positive future.
At the Georgia-Pacific Green Bay facility, the team is inspired to continue building their recycling capabilities. Speaking about the impact of this technology on the community, Dean says, “It’s good to continue the plant’s long tradition of turning materials that would otherwise go to waste into quality products that people value”.