Colorful paper coffee cups on a gray background.

Disposable coffee cups like these have a plastic coating that has historically left them out of the recovery and recycling process. | NatalyaBond/Shutterstock

Georgia-Pacific this week said two of its mills are bringing in mixed-paper bales that include single-use cups with a polyethylene barrier layer.

Georgia-Pacific, an Atlanta-based packaging and recycling firm, on Sept. 15 announced its decision to accept cups in mixed-paper bales at the Green Bay, Wis. and Muskogee, Okla. recycled paper mills. The change was made as part of a partnership with the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) and the NextGen Consortium, a cup-focused initiative led by Closed Loop Partners.

“PE coatings, along with any remaining liquid and food left behind from use, have historically left single-use paper cups out of the recovery and recycling process,” the project partners stated in a release. “Georgia-Pacific, though, has proven through its extensive re-pulping trials that the Green Bay and Muskogee mills can effectively recapture valuable cup fiber from paper cups while screening out PE coatings and reuse the fiber to make toilet tissue, napkins and paper towels.”

Kate Daly, a managing director at Closed Loop Partners, said the mill operator’s actions “reinforce the value of the materials in paper cups and build critical markets for recycled materials.”

Natha Dempsey, president of FPI, said the organization is “excited to partner with new communities that previously didn’t have the capability to recycle” PE-coated paper cups.

Georgia-Pacific joins several other major paper product companies in paper cup acceptance. WestRock in 2018 began accepting single-use paper cups at eight of its mills across the country. Mill operator Sustana also began accepting these cups in recent years, and the company even uses some of the output fiber to create new paper cups.

MRFs are also exploring more widespread acceptance of PE-coated cups, with some facilities employing robotic sortation to better capture the materials. Meanwhile, paper product producers Cascades and Sonoco have invested to produce a cup without a PE barrier, potentially facilitating greater acceptance of cups by fiber mills.

More stories about challenging materials