Talks Circular economy

Is the end of the disposable cup in sight?

 By RP Siegel
Circular economy

Every year 600 billion single-use plastic and paper cups are being used, most of them ending up in a landfill, or even worse, littering the environment. Most of these cups are not recyclable, nor will they break down quickly in a landfill…

In the past, the companies selling the beverages that were served in these cups had little reason to care about this; it wasn’t considered their problem. Today that is changing, as more and more consumers and businesses across the spectrum are recognizing the numerous benefits of moving to a circular economy. At the same time, expectations for corporate accountability are also increasing. One example of this shift was recently highlighted by the announcement that McDonald’s and Starbucks will join forces with Closed Loop Partners to develop a globally recyclable and/or compostable beverage cup. Closed Loop Partners (CLP) is an investment platform for sustainable consumer goods, recycling and circular economy development. It consists of three entities:

–  the Closed Loop Fund, which invests in municipal recycling infrastructure and emerging technologies;

–  closed Loop Venture, an early-stage venture fund focused on investing in catalytic technologies and business models;

–  the Closed Loop Foundation, which conducts research on and solution searches for technologies and business models focused on building the circular economy.


A new hub in NYC

This year, CLP launched the Center for Circular Economy, a New York City-based collaboration center that is a hub for innovators to commercialize products, services and technologies that lead the transition from a linear take, make, waste economy to a restorative one in which materials are shared, re-used and continuously cycled.
According to Kate Daly, the Center’s executive director, “All of these efforts are part of our vision of a circular economy that allows what we consume to be recovered and returned to new supply chains again and again”.
The Center is partnering with OpenIDEO in a collaboration called the NextGen Cup Consortium and Challenge. The competition is open to innovators, entrepreneurs, industry experts and recyclers with promising solutions for the recovery of single-use cups and will provide a path to market for effective, scalable solutions. Those selected will receive up to $1 million in funding and a six-month accelerator program to help scale their solutions. Closed Loop Partners will be committing $10 million towards this effort, provided primarily by the Starbucks and McDonald’s. Says Daly, “The NextGen Cup Consortium is a pre-competitive effort that brings together coffee and food retailers to seek a global solution“.
As for the competition itself, OpenIDEO has a great track record of engaging the design community to identify innovative solutions through a collaborative model. According to their website, they have already tackled 59 diverse social issues, among them food waste, plastic packaging, emergency response and mass incarceration.
Coming up with a new recyclable cup will not be easy, according to Daly. “Most single use hot/cold cups are made of fiber with a plastic-based coating to retain heat or cold and prevent leaking,” she explains. “Because this is a mixed material and not 100 percent paper, the cup cannot be included in mixed-paper recycling and is not suitable for composting.”
So, is it possible to make a cup that is leakproof, provides insulation and is made entirely out of paper? Perhaps some other recyclable material could be used. In the end, it must be affordable and recyclable, which means it can’t mix dissimilar materials. That’s why they call it a challenge.
According to information provided by CLP, “Submissions must ensure a viable market solution by meeting the food-service industry’s strict health and safety standards while maximizing recyclers’ ability to recover valuable materials”.
After the winning entities are selected, the NextGen Circular Business Accelerator will provide mentorship, access to business and technical resources, and opportunities for network building and value-chain participation, as needed.
Says Daly, “We are focusing not just on the technical solution of the cup design and materials, but also on bringing together key actors across the value chain. We seek to identify together an end-to-end solution that factors in the infrastructure of today and where we might be in ten years”.

Starbucks is working to bring a fully recyclable and compostable cup to the market

Big supply chains’ resolutions

Speaking for Starbucks, Colleen Chapman, vice president of Global Social Impact, said, “Our store partners proudly pour sustainably sourced coffee in our 28,000 locations around the world, but everyone wants to take our ability to serve it sustainably to the next level. No one is satisfied with the incremental industry progress made to date, it’s just not moving fast enough. So today, we are declaring a moon shot for sustainability to work together as an industry to bring a fully recyclable and compostable cup to the market, with a three-year ambition”.
Marion Gross, senior vice president and chief supply chain officer, spoke for McDonald’s. “McDonald’s is committed to using our scale for good to make positive changes that impact our planet and the communities we serve. We are excited to join Starbucks and Closed Loop to help solve this pressing challenge as collaboration is key to finding a scalable, lasting global solution”.
Next time you’re out and about, there’s a good chance a McDonald’s or a Starbucks might be just around the corner. Now it seems a fully recyclable or compostable drinking cup could be, too.

READ MORE: Circular economy around the globe by Peter Ward

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.