Earlier this year, Starbucks sent 18 truckloads of old paper cups to a paper mill in Wisconsin to prove a point: Contrary to a widespread myth, paper coffee cups can be recycled cost-effectively. The cups–25 million in total, from excess inventory that the coffee chain otherwise would have sent to landfill–were processed at the mill. Then the recycled fiber was sent to another partner to be incorporated into paperboard for new Starbucks cups.
The pilot project was a way to “demonstrate that a coffee cup can be turned back into a coffee cup,” says Jay Hunsberger, VP of sales for North America from Sustana, the mill that recycled the old cups. At the mill, the cups were mixed with water and ground into a pulp with a seven-foot-tall corkscrew to begin to separate the plastic lining that helps keep coffee cups from getting soggy. The fibers were screened and washed to finish the separation, then made into sheets and sent to WestRock, a packaging company, to be made into paperboard. At a third company, Seda, the board was printed with the Starbucks logo and shaped into new cups.