Starbucks wants to bring a fully recyclable and compostable cup to the market within the next three years.

The coffee company is committing $10 million in partnership with Closed Loop Partners and its Center for the Circular Economy to establish a groundbreaking consortium to launch the NextGen Cup Challenge.

It’s the first step in the development of a global end-to-end solution that would allow cups around the world to be diverted from landfills and composted or given a second life as another cup, napkin or even a chair – anything that can use recycled material.

Through the NextGen Cup Challenge, the consortium will award accelerator grants to entrepreneurs working on ideas that could lead to the development of more sustainable cup solutions and, invite industry participation and partnership on the way to identifying a global solution.

And, throughout development, the solution will be open source so others can benefit and innovate on the path towards the development of recyclable and compostable cups around the world.

“We want to make sure this technology is available to everyone because it’s the right thing to do,” says Andy Corlett, director of packaging R&D for Starbucks. “The idea of environmental sustainability in packaging is not just a Starbucks issue. It’s a global issue. Anything that gets us closer to that goal is not something we want to keep to ourselves.”

Continued Quest for a Greener Cup

As the NextGen Challenge kicks off, internal research continues as Starbucks Research and Development team initiates a trial of a new bio-liner, made partially from plant-based materials for its paper cup.

The internal trial, expected to take six months, will test not only for environmental impact, but whether the cup’s liner can stand up to stringent safety requirements and quality standards when filled with a hot liquid. This trial marks the 13th internal test of its kind in the last year alone as part of continued efforts to deliver on its goal for a Greener Cup.

Industry leaders such as Lynn M. Dyer, president of Foodservice Packaging Institute, recognize the challenges that come with striving to improve on the recyclability of cups.

"Starbucks is a leader in the ongoing work to make a recyclable paper cup a reality. However, this takes a great deal of time and effort, and certainly not something that can be done alone or by simply designing a new cup," said Dyer. “The truth is no cup is recyclable until it is widely accepted by communities, recycling facilities and paper mills. We have been fortunate to have Starbucks engagement and partnership in working on this challenge, and we look forward to continued collaboration towards a truly recyclable cup.”

Starbucks paper cups are currently manufactured with 10 percent post-consumer recycled fiber, the first prototype of its kind to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2006.

The inside of the cups is coated with a thin liner designed to meet quality and safety standards, including preventing leaks. The cups are recyclable in many municipalities with the appropriate infrastructure, including Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and New York City. Starbucks is pushing for broader acceptance, and the use of a plant-based liner could help more municipal recycling and composting facilities process used cups, keeping them from the landfill.

“Developing a plant-based liner that stands up to hot liquids and is commercially viable is incredibly hard, but we believe the solution is out there, not just for cups but for other exciting applications, like making straws greener, in the future,” says Rebecca Zimmer, director of global environmental impact.

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