While innovative cup design is central to the NextGen Consortium’s ambition to address single-use food packaging waste globally, the end-of-life recovery of the cups through recycling and composting infrastructure is equally important. Alignment with collection, sortation, and processing systems, and end markets is critical if we’re to improve sustainability and convert used cups into useable formats rather than waste.

Given the inconsistency of regional recycling regulations and the diversity of recovery infrastructure, closing the loop on the fiber cup requires an understanding of the current infrastructure landscape, best practices, and stakeholders at every step of the value chain. As part of our assessment of the best path forward for a more widely recyclable and/or compostable fiber cup, we mapped the current journey of the cup and interviewed key cup manufacturers, waste collectors, materials recovery facilities (MRFs), municipalities, paper mills, and other value chain stakeholders to gather expert insights on the state of cup recycling and composting, challenges, and opportunities.

The Current Journey of the Cup

While fiber cups are technically recyclable, in many markets you can’t recycle them. Even in markets where you can, many cups don’t find their way through the proper channels and even when they do, you still have to manage the leftover PE cup liner, present in most current cup formats. In practice, the vast majority of fiber cups end up in landfills today. Consumers are confused as to the proper disposal method (it varies from place-to-place), MRFs are deterred by the lack of volume of cups entering their facilities and some paper mills are concerned about potential contamination of their recycled paper stream. The inconsistencies and spatial gaps across the recovery infrastructure result in too many cups finding their way to landfills - wasted. 

We want to change that. By connecting upstream product and service innovation to downstream recovery infrastructure, and focusing on understanding and integrating new cup solutions within existing recovery systems, we can keep the valuable fiber in the cup in circulation.

The six participating cup companies in our NextGen Circular Business Accelerator all ran their new cup solutions through MRFs to see first-hand what happens to their cups at end-of-use.  They also explored the value of their cup materials post-processing to better understand the market incentives for recycling or composting, which are ultimately driven by end markets.

Through the NextGen Consortium’s integrated, holistic approach to aligning product design with infrastructure, together, we can achieve a waste-free future journey of the cup in which materials are continuously cycled and the emphasis on the extraction of raw materials is reduced. In this setting, the materials in cups continue their lifecycle and we move closer to achieving circularity.

The Future Journey of the Cup

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By working across the entire value chain and engaging key stakeholders, winners of the NextGen Cup Challenge are tackling a complex problem in a holistic way, sending valuable material back into the supply chain - benefiting people, the planet, and businesses
— Erin Simon, Director, Sustainability R&D, World Wildlife Fund.