The race toward a more sustainable cup

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The foodservice industry appears to be on a collision course, as skyrocketing delivery demand barrels toward the snowballing movement to eliminate single-use packaging. Companies up and down the foodservice supply chain are focusing on turning the 250 billion fiber to-go cups used annually from waste into valuable materials in the recycling system. But can all this innovation force society’s convenience-dependent hand?

 “At the end of the day, the real issue is single-use packaging not being properly managed—items going in the trash instead of recycling or compost bins, which is better than having it end up on land or waterways,” says Lynn Dyer, president of the nonprofit Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI). “If we didn’t find single-use items on beaches and on land, we wouldn’t have the same outcry.”

Major foodservice brands such as Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Yum Brands and Coca-Cola are edging closer to diverting cup waste through the NextGen Consortium, a three-year, precompetitive collaboration convened by Closed Loop Partners. The 12 winners of the NextGen Cup Challenge, a contest to redesign the fiber to-go cup, have entered the testing phase. The winners include companies such as CupClub, a returnable cup system built around drop-off points similar to bike sharing, and Footprint, which created a fiber-based cup and lid that are recyclable and compostable. They will have access to a network of mentors, business and technical resources and piloting opportunities to scale a widely recyclable and/or compostable cup, culminating in a pitch day this month that will (hopefully) catapult them into the global supply chain.

“We’re really focusing on making sure they are aligning with what’s needed within the specific context of these restaurants,” says Kate Daly, managing director of Closed Loop Partners. That might mean a field trip to McDonald’s or Starbucks to see how cups are stacked, or to a waste collector in San Francisco to put the cups in the processing machine to see how they’re sorted. “The design feedback loop has been critical to hear what’s important in terms of branding, logistics, challenges of washing, et cetera,” she says.

Efforts of all sizes

All the packaging innovation in the world is for naught if consumers decide to drop cups on the ground, or put them in the trash when they could be recycled—which brings in the broader conversation of consumer confusion about recycling. FPI is partnering with dozens of U.S. cities looking to add recycling to curbside programs, providing grant funding for efforts such as foam recycling, plus resident education toolkits that contain tips for recycling paper versus rigid plastic cups or removing food or drink residue before recycling.

Finding a solution also means staying open to reusable-cup programs, even just internally. Fast-casual giant Chipotle Mexican Grill, which isn’t in the NextGen Consortium, is piloting a Crew Reusables program encouraging employees to eat and drink from reusable bowls and cups. If the pilot expands to all restaurants, Chipotle could save 733 tons of waste annually, according to Sustainability Director Caitlin Leibert.The brand is also testing consumer-facing cups with strawless lids and recyclable or compostable cups and lids.

“No option should be ignored—whether that’s cup reusing programs, cup-sharing programs or recyclable and compostable solutions,” says Liliana Esposito, chief communications officer for Wendy’s, a NextGen Consortium member. In the same breath, Esposito acknowledges the challenge for a brand “that relies heavily on the drive-thru, and in which the majority of the packaging leaves the restaurant.”

Indeed, reusable-cup programs wouldn’t just upend most quick-service and fast-casual operations built on single-use packaging—there’s also the potential liability that comes with customers bringing their own containers, and the increases in labor costs and water and chemical usage to sanitize reusables on each visit. 

“There’s no silver bullet, no quick solution to put in the marketplace and everything falls into place,” Daly says. “For us, a lot of this is iterative.”



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