Coffee cup

New developments challenge a common myth - Paper cups can and should be recycled across Europe

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For many, coffee from a paper cup is part of a daily routine. Yet it remains a common myth that it is difficult to recycle paper cups after use. Overall, more than 80% of paper and cardboard packaging is collected for recycling in Europe, making paper and cardboard the most recycled packaging material in Europe. There is a lot of potential in collecting paper cups for recycling, as – unlike many believe – they can be recycled in the existing recycling processes.

Stora Enso aims for full circularity with its products. All materials are made from renewable wood fiber and they are designed, and also tested for recyclability. Paperboard materials for paper cups are not an exception. In fact, paper cups can and should be recycled after use for two reasons. Firstly, this would further reduce their climate impact even by more than half. Secondly, recycling paper cups captures the high-quality fiber material and gives it a second life in various end-uses enabling circular bioeconomy.

Paper cups are circular already today

Stora Enso has strong expertise in paper and paperboard production and recycling of materials in its mills. Ensuring good recyclability of cups in existing recycling processes has been a guiding principle for further development. Recyclability is tested and proven starting from lab and pilot scale and now recently also through positive proof points at industrial scale in Varkaus Mill. 

Stora Enso’s site in Varkaus, Finland, produces unbleached softwood pulp and high-quality brown and white top containerboard for corrugated board. In addition, the mill currently uses about one third of the total board packaging recycled in Finland as its raw material, including used beverage cartons and other barrier coated packaging such as paper cups. To hold the liquid a paper cup needs either a thin plastics lining or a dispersion. Barrier coating means that material has a protection layer for the most demanding end-uses such as safe and hygienic food and beverage packaging. In recycling, Stora Enso separates this barrier coating from fibers in the recycling process enabling full recovery of fibers.

Varkaus Containerboard Mill has been operational since 2015 and Stora Enso recently announced an investment to develop and increase the production capacity of the site, adding up to the total amount of recycled fiber it can process. Cups are recycled as part of its normal process already today. In the future even more cups can be recycled in Varkaus Mill.

In addition to Varkaus, Stora Enso has earlier successfully carried out similar industrial scale trials with barrier coated paper cups at its paper site, where the used paper cup fiber material was recycled into high quality magazine paper.

White paper cups

Material innovation accelerates full recyclability – Dispersion coating technology and thinner PE layers

Stora Enso continues to develop novel solutions to accelerate circularity and to meet customer demand for easier recycling and further lowering the environmental impact of barrier coated food service packaging.

Typical standard paper and board recycling mills have had difficulties in recycling of two side plastics coated board packaging in big quantities. Barrier boards coated with dispersion technology have been developed to improve the repulpability and recyclability in conventional packaging recycling mills and decrease the amount of plastic traditionally used in various end uses like foodservice board. Stora Enso has introduced a new dispersion coating technology as alternative to traditional PE coated materials that on the one hand meet the requirements regarding functionality and food safety but also show benefits in common recycling operations.

Stora Enso is preparing for the future and expects higher volumes in the dispersion-coated product category and has a recently built bespoke coating line for dispersion technique in Forshaga, Sweden. Products with Stora Enso Aqua and Aqua+ dispersion coating technology are designed to improve recycling due to the properties of coating and enable an even better recovery of high quality fibers in various recycling mills. 

Recent production runs in Varkaus mill also included the novel dispersion coated materials dedicated to be used in cups. The carefully monitored full-scale industrial trial demonstrated the future market mix with high in-feed share of dispersion cups. The analysis showed again that the existing pulping and screening process can take used paper cups and reuse the high-value fibers into other end-uses, like packaging boards.

In addition to dispersion coating technology, innovation is springing also in the PE coated materials. Stora Enso has recently launched UltraThinPE Tec™, allowing for the thinnest polymer coating - less than 5% - for foodservice products such as cups on the market. Products with UltraThinPE Tec™ have one-sided, minimal-plastic coatings, which can ease the recycling in standard recycling mills together with other paper and board packaging.

Paper cup

How to ramp up paper cup recycling?

“Based on the earlier encouraging insights and now on the recent ones, as well as the ongoing development in materials, we are looking forward to scaling up the paper cup recycling. We should look at paper cups and other barrier coated packaging like we look at any other paper and paperboard material today such as magazines or e-commerce boxes. Surely we can recover the fibers with existing recycling processes despite some additional elements that come with the products e.g. staples in magazines or adhesive tapes in e-commerce boxes. We want to invite partners and customers for developing solutions together for collection and sorting of used paper cups for recycling”, says Maria Holopainen, Business Lead on Circular Economy from Stora Enso Packaging Materials.

“One challenge is the food or drink residue there might be in the cups. Disposing empty and clean paper cups and other packaging material for recycling is something we all can contribute to, and we are working across the value chain to improve the quality of material for recycling to guarantee full recovery of the valuable fibers,” Maria Holopainen continues.

All of these initiatives support Stora Enso’s goal to be fully circular and net positive by 2050 but are also in line with the EU’s Action Plan for the Circular Economy, which includes e.g. targets for recycling 85 percent of paper and cardboard by 2030.

Join the effort and ask for more information:

Contact Maria Holopainen, Business Lead on Circular Economy, Stora Enso Packaging Materials

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