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Colorado’s largest recycling company — finally — will be able to recycle Starbucks and other coffee cups

As major chains are spending $15 million to develop a compostable container, Alpine thinks it can divert 5 tons of cups from the landfill each month

Paper coffee cups, like those used by Starbucks, are cost-prohibitive to recycle because the containers are lined with plastic to prevent seepage. But Denver's Alpine Waste & Recycling said it has found a way to recycle them. Service will start around Oct. 1, 2018. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)
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Alpine Waste & Recycling, Colorado’s largest recycling company, has figured out what to do with the perfect cup of coffee: Recycle it.

Starting as early as Oct. 1, the company will begin picking up paper cups from coffee shops and household customers and transport them to a Wisconsin mill for proper recycling. The deal makes Alpine one of the first recyclers nationwide to find a way to keep cups out of the dump.

“We had to find a mill that was willing to find a way to separate the complex materials in the cup,” said Brent Hildebrand, a vice president at Alpine Waste & Recycling. “Then it was our responsibility to pull them out of the single stream of recycled materials. This was an important challenge for us to solve, because so many of our clients had mentioned the strong desire to keep those cups from going into the landfill.”

The process is much more difficult than it sounds. Paper coffee cups, like those from Starbucks, are lined with a polyethylene plastic to keep the beverage warm and the liquid from seeping through. Separating the plastic from the paper has been too costly for most pulp mills to touch.

That led environmental advocacy group Stand.earth to expose Starbucks’ practice of taking coffee cups tossed in store recycle bins and sending them to landfills earlier this year. The group put GPS technology into a few Starbucks paper cups and then tracked their disposal to local Denver landfills — all on video.

“People want to do the right thing, but I think it’s up to the private sector to figure out the system,” said Jim Ace, Stand’s actions manager and senior campaigner who spearheaded the investigation.

Six days after the video was released, Starbucks committed $10 million to develop a fully recyclable and compostable coffee cup. McDonald’s joined in, adding an additional $5 million for development. The NextGen Cup Challenge launched this month.

“The challenge,” Starbucks said in a statement to The Colorado Sun last month, “is the first step to developing a global solution that allows cups to be composted and/or given a second life.”

Starbucks also said it is working with the National League of Cities to push for more recycling and composting programs across the country.

Recycling bins at Starbucks inform customers that they don’t take paper cups or lids. That may change after Denver’s Alpine Waste & Recycling found a way to recycle the cups with a plastic lining. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Alpine is working with the Foodservice Packaging Institute and its Community Partnership program to recycle the cups. It will use Sustana, a pulp mill in De Pere, Wisconsin, to separate the plastic from the paper. And coffee shops that use Alpine will be able to make good on the promise that cups thrown in recycle bins actually get recycled.

Ace, with Stand.earth, wasn’t aware of other companies stepping up like Alpine and called the Denver recycler’s effort “great news” because the long fiber in a cup can be recycled seven to eight times.

“It’s a relatively valuable material,” Ace said. “We’ve been advocating for a new liner that breaks down easier in a pulp mill. It would be a material that is not only recyclable but biodegradable. We don’t want microplastics ending up in the ocean.”

However, Ace added in a later email, this indicates the industry is okay with cups that have plastic liners instead of developing a more sustainable product that is biodegradable. 

“We see polyethylene as a problematic material for lining cups and other foodservice products,” he said.

Alpine, which researched coffee cup recycling process for the past year, also found that once a program is in place, its recycling plant could receive up to 5 tons of coffee cups a month “depending in large part upon consumer awareness and willingness to participate,” according to the company.

So far, Alpine hasn’t had direct conversations with Starbucks or other national corporations, Hildebrand said.

But, he added, “If any of them want to sign up to receive Alpine’s service, we would be happy to talk with them.”

More on the state of Colorado’s trash: 
Coloradans generate 9.6 pounds of trash per person, per day. Where does it all go?
Recycling in Colorado is tedious, cost-prohibitive, voluntary — and evolving
Meet the robots and other contraptions making Colorado’s recycling more efficient
Colorado’s largest recycling company — finally — will be able to recycle Starbucks and other coffee cups

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Contact Tamara Chuang at tamara@coloradosun.com