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Coffee Cups & Pulp Fiction

It was great to see Dennis Collins (not pictured above!) on the latest episode of ABC’s War on Waste; he’s developed a technique for separating plastic lining from the paper in disposable coffee cups – whilst the cups first need to be separated at the source, 100% recycling may be possible. 

This article though is about the other 930,000,000 cups sold in Australia each year to people who don’t take a reusable cup to the cafe and who don’t have access to, or make use of, the drop off bins being installed at 7-11 stores (see article on collection bins to be rolled out by March 2018).

Earlier in the year, I published two articles (see links below) on the recyclability of coffee cups and highlighted the limited amount of standardised design guides on what has become quite a contentious topic; I've learnt more during 2017:

  • Pulpability is a key determinant of a cups suitability for the recovered paper stream but specifications and laboratory test methodologies are limited in terms of guiding cup designers;
  • When paper mills use the term ‘recyclable’ they are likely referring to the quality of the fibres recovered at the mill, rather than the yield or quantity of materials recovered – this can obviously lead to confusion when the word is being used in two different ways;
  • Some cups contain additives to enhance performance and these can make it difficult to recover fibres during pulping;
  • The thickness of the liner can determine how aggressively it is attached to the fibres - the thinner the liner, the easier it is for the fibres to release during pulping; and
  • Cup designs differ greatly including the fibre type and lining material, so a single recyclability classification is just too simplistic.

These findings, supported by recent pulpability laboratory testing, has resulted in cup manufacturers reviewing their choice of fibre stock to find more pulpable options.

The plastic lining is not the primary issue when it's only present on the inside of the cup. Where cups have lining on the inside and outside, they will have low pulpability and so won't be recyclable. Who's responsible for the outer lining in this case? The company wanting a high sheen finish, the expectations of the consumer or an (historical?) technical issue such as its ability to cope with condensation?

What's missing is an agreed method for determining what polycoated paper items are acceptable at paper mills so cup manufacturers can confidently know what to tell their consumers.

Specifying Pulpability - the exciting technical stuff!

I understand that for old corrugated cardboard (OCC) collected at a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), the pulpability of all items needs to be at least 85% to be acceptable at the mill, meaning >85% of the item’s weight will be captured for use in new paper products.

The 'Mixed Paper' stream is the other fibre stream collected at the MRF but this will never be as clean as the OCC. There is currently no pulpability specification for this material and so I’m advocating a pulpability level of at least 70% (by weight) for determining acceptability in the Mixed Paper stream, provided the specified ‘out throw’ (See: ISRI's Scrap Specification Circular) limits are also met for the paper bales.

However, manufacturers will be reticent to invest in laboratory testing to determine the pulpability of each design, which suggests a standard design guide is needed to avoid ‘pulp fiction’ (thanks for your patience!) being used as the basis for recyclability claims.

Who should stand on the dais?

Reusable cups will obviously take out the gold and Dennis will take out the silver but I think cups designed for high pulpability and recycled at kerbside should be awarded the bronze so we can encourage cup manufacturers to design kerbside recyclable cups and apply a standardised on-pack label to help consumers understand the difference.

  1. Time to break the myth about coffee cups
  2. Pinch and squeeze my bottom please  

Anthony Peyton is the Director of GreenChip, environmental specialists in the areas of packaging, waste prevention and life cycle assessment.  He is also the Southern Director and Victorian Chair of the Australian Institute of Packaging (aipack.com.au) and the Director of PREP Design (prep.org.au). Personal views are expressed here to encourage discussion and further research.