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

Rajiv Banawali

Posted 24 minutes ago. About 5 minutes of reading.

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In 2019, WestRock’s response to the redesign of the hot cup was named the winner of the NextGen Cup competition. Here we go behind the scenes to develop this innovative barrier technology and hear what will happen next with the Holy Grail with an easily recyclable hot cup.

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of all inventions; and ideas that change the world begin when there is an urgent need to address them.

Every year, about 16 billion disposable coffee cups are used worldwide, the vast majority of which, contrary to what many people believe, are not recyclable. As a packaging solutions provider for some of the world’s largest beverage distributors, as well as an operator of a processing plant that manages about 8 million tons of products per year, WestRock is in a promising position to help innovate for paper hot cups. .

Problem with hot cups

When a regular consumer goes to their, her or their local coffee shop to pick up a regular one, many don’t realize that sometimes a seemingly eco-friendly cup can’t be thrown in a blue bucket. This is because most disposable coffee cups are made of plastic or plastic paper to insulate and prevent them from getting wet and leaking during use. This multi-layered makeup, while useful for drinking, requires a more advanced recycling process; and most communities in United States and Canada not equipped for this. In addition, these cups degrade easily and therefore contribute to microplastic contamination.

That’s why a few years ago WestRock decided to invest in technology to develop a glass that is completely recyclable. The impact this could have will be huge.

Challenge the NextGen Cup

The first effort began a few years ago with
EnShield® – our existing cardboard technology, which withstands the use of oil and grease and is completely recyclable – to replace low-density polyethylene, a material commonly used for lining paper cups. Our research team has begun to think of ways to apply this innovative technology in a curved paper cup shape.

Then, in 2018, shortly after we started this path of innovation
NextGen Consortium announced
NextGen Cup Challenge. It was an open call to answer this question: “How can we design the next generation of fiber glass so that it can be rebuilt globally while maintaining the performance standards we know and trust?”

This further fueled our mission.

Although there were several different ways, we ultimately focused our efforts on creating a coating that was recyclable. This is a difficult task. The coating must meet existing standards and must be recyclable or re-pulp – or return to the pulp state to turn into a new fiber product. We were looking for chemical cosmetics that would act as a traditional plastic substrate but did not adversely affect recycling when applied to fiber products.

One particularly difficult problem was that – to be stable – the coating had to be sealed at a certain temperature during the cup-forming process, but not sealed in other parts of the production process or when sitting in hot trucks during transport. As many packaging experts know, this is a fine line.

Another puzzle took into account all the loads on the cup during the formation. The material must withstand the folding and formation of a certain shape. We have worked hard on barrier chemistry to solve all these technical problems.

With more than 480 teams from around the world participating in the NextGen Cup Challenge, WestRock was selected as one of the 12 winners of our Round Cup – a recyclable cardboard solution for hot and cold drinks. The solution meets all modern specifications in the field of paper cups and catering, while improving the recoverability and improving the recycling process to obtain 98% fiber yield. Currently, a limited number of paper mills in North America are accepting paper cups with polylines. Our solution can be more easily recycled on a wide range of paper mills, helping to provide higher quality fiber that stays in circulation – which is good for the planet and paper industry.

We had an amazing team on this work – including our barrier scientist, Jay Pangas head of the technical team and senior researcher Natasha Meltan in the innovation team; with Julie Gannan, our R&D director, who heads the entire project. But many more people took part in this teamwork, and I am very grateful to everyone who participated in this challenge.

Bring the cup to market

Once the technology was developed, we focused on bringing the cup to market. Consumer testing is a critical step in our innovation process; we do this through selected pilots in partnership with our clients. The findings from these tests are the following, broader testing, which allows us to ultimately scale the most promising solutions.

We were lucky to work Tim Hortans as a brand partner of our pilot cup, which is expected to debut soon on the chosen Vancouver restaurants.

Barrier research is ongoing

WestRock is excited to continue exploring recycled barrier technologies for a host of other food containers. Ice cream pints, water cups and yogurt cups, among others, require specialized technology designed for specific product purposes. Each will have different molding processes and stressors, which means that cardboard and coating need to be designed and maintained a little differently. We look forward to addressing these issues over the next few years, eventually working on the opportunity to offer paper alternatives for a wide variety of plastic cup needs.

At the same time, I know that I am not the only member of the team who is waiting for the moment when we will see our prototype “at large”, so to speak. As project presenter Julie recently mentioned, “Working on something for a few years and then seeing someone walk out of the store holding it … it’s going to be an extraordinary moment.”

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