Making a Hot Cup Recyclable: Behind-the-Scenes Innovation at WestRock

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Rajiv Banavali

Posted 2 hours ago. About 5 minutes to read.

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In 2019, WestRock’s answer to a recyclable hot cup was named the winner of the NextGen Cup challenge. Here we go behind the scenes of the development of this innovative barrier technology and find out what happens next to the holy grail of the easily recyclable hot cup.

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of all invention; and world-changing ideas start when there is an urgent need to address.

Each year, a estimated at 16 billion
disposable coffee cups are used all over the world, the vast majority of which are, contrary to what many believe, non-recyclable. As a packaging solutions provider for some of the world’s largest beverage distributors, as well as a recycling facility operator that handles approximately 8 million tonnes of product annually, WestRock is in a promising position to help innovate the way forward for paper hot cup.

The problem of hot cups

When the average consumer goes to their local cafe to pick up the usual, many don’t realize that the sometimes seemingly eco-friendly mug can’t be thrown in the blue bin. This is because most single-use coffee cups are lined with plastic or paper, with plastic to insulate them and prevent them from getting soggy and leaking when in use. This multi-layered make-up, while useful for the consumer experience, requires a more advanced recycling process; and most communities in United States and Canada are not equipped to handle this. In addition, these cups do not degrade easily and therefore contribute to microplastic pollution.

That’s why WestRock decided a few years ago to invest in technology to develop a fully recyclable cup. The impact this could have would be enormous.

The NextGen Cup Challenge

The first efforts started several years ago with
EnShield® — our existing paperboard technology that resists oil and grease applications while being fully recyclable — to replace low-density polyethylene, a material commonly used to line paper cups. Our research team started thinking about ways to apply this innovative technology to the curved shape of a paper cup.

Then, in 2018, shortly after we had already embarked on this path of innovation, the
NextGen Consortium announced the
NextGen Cup Challenge. This was an open call to answer this question: “How could we design the next generation fiber cup to be recoverable globally, while maintaining the performance standards we know and whom we trust?”

This further fueled our mission.

Although there were many ways to go about it, we ultimately focused our efforts on creating a recyclable coating. It is not an easy task. The coating must perform to existing standards and must be recyclable or repulpable – or returned to a pulp state to be made into a new fibrous product. We were looking for a chemical makeup that acts like the traditional plastic liner but doesn’t negatively impact recyclability when applied to fiber products.

A particularly tricky challenge was that – to be stable – the liner had to seal to itself at a certain temperature during the cup forming process, but not seal to itself in other parts of the production process. or when sitting in hot trucks during transport. As many packaging experts know, it’s a fine line.

Another puzzle was to consider all the stresses exerted on a cup during formation. The material must resist bending and shaping into a specific shape. We worked hard on the chemical barrier to overcome all these technical challenges.

From more than 480 teams from around the world who participated in the NextGen Cup Challenge, WestRock was
selected
as one of 12 winners for our circular cup – a recyclable cardboard solution for hot or cold drink cup applications. The solution meets all current paper cup and foodservice industry specifications while improving recoverability and improving the recycling process for 98% fiber yield. Currently, a limited number of paper mills accept poly-lined paper cups in North America. Our solution can be recycled more easily across a wide range of paper mills, helping to ensure that more high-quality fiber remains in circulation, which is good for the planet and the paper industry.

We had an incredible team on this job – including our barrier scientist, Jay Panas Technical Team Leader and Principal Investigator Natasha Melton in the innovation team; with Julie Gannon, our R&D director, in charge of the whole project. But many other people participated in this team effort, and I am very grateful to everyone who participated in this challenge.

Take the cup to the market

Once the technology was developed, our next goal was to bring the mug to market. Consumer testing is a critical step in our innovation process; we do this through pilots selected in partnership with our customers. Learnings from these tests inform subsequent larger tests, ultimately allowing us to scale the most promising solutions.

We had the chance to work with Tim Hortons as a brand partner for our pilot cup, which should
start
soon at select Vancouver Restaurants.

Ongoing Barrier Research

WestRock is excited to continue exploring recyclable barrier technologies for a myriad of other food containers. Pints ​​of ice cream, lined water cups, and yogurt cups, among others, all require specialized technology developed for the specific use of the item. Each will have different forming processes and stressors, which means the paperboard and liner must be developed and supported slightly differently. We look forward to meeting these challenges over the next few years, ultimately working towards the ability to offer paper alternatives to a wide variety of plastic cup needs.

In the meantime, I know I’m not the only team member anticipating when we’ll see our prototype “in the wild,” so to speak. As project lead Julie recently mentioned, “To work on something for several years and then see someone walk out of a store holding it…it’s going to be a great time.”

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