Every day 100 million cups are bought in Europe. Not truly recyclable, they are wasted and left to pollute our planet.
It is not as important what material we choose, as it is what end-of-life options the end-applications offer. The key design consideration should always be: can it be reused, refilled, or recycled without losing value and this way stay within the circular economy?
A paper cup sounds sustainable. But why aren’t they? Why are to-go paper cups and countless other paper-based food packaging not truly recyclable? The short answer is their non-separable multi-material structure.1 Today, most to-go coffee cups are mainly made from paper as a means to reduce the use of plastic. However, paper cannot preserve and protect liquid content on its own. Unlike plastic, it does not possess the necessary hermetic properties to keep the content from leaking out. For paper to function, it must be coated with a thin layer of plastic on the inside (and sometimes outside). And so, the final product becomes a mixed material consisting of both paper, plastic and/or aluminium that isn’t recyclable.
Essentially, most paper-based packaging has to be coated with plastic to function, making it a non-recyclable mixed material.
You will often see paper-based to-go cups baring the recycling logo. Yet just because it in theory is recyclable, doesn’t mean it in reality is recycled.
In truth, the cups – and all other products of non-separable mixed-materials – are barely recyclable in the commonly understood sense. As the paper and the plastic are bonded together, recycling requires separating the two materials; a process that is long and expensive, and only a few recycling facilities perform. The standard public waste collection system is not built to sort or recycle mixed materials, and therefore, these products often end up at a landfill or incineration. In 2018, only 4 percent of single-use paper cups were recycled2 – despite many of them carrying the three arrowed recycling symbol.
In theory, companies are allowed to put a recycling symbol on their mixed material to-go cups, as the paper and plastic separately and in itself are recyclable. In practice, however, this is misleading and actively encouraging a misunderstanding of industry symbols.
In 2018, only 4 percent of single-use cups were actually recycled – despite many of them carrying the three arrows recycling symbol.
Guaranteeing circularity through e.g., recycling is important for several reasons. Not only does recycling reduce the need to harvest new raw materials, but it also minimizes the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, our oceans, and our streets. In a business-as-usual scenario, experts project that mixed materials will represent 80 percent of the remaining macro-plastics leakage into the ocean by 2040.3 Guaranteeing recyclability can help prevent this scenario from happening. Producing fully recyclable materials gives consumers incentive to recycle instead of wasting – especially if the products are part of a Deposit Return System.
Being able to recycle instead of wasting will likewise have a positive impact on the overall carbon footprint per product. According to a study by the Nordic Council of Ministers, when looking at CO2 emissions, recycling is both the best option compared to virgin production (production stage) and incineration (after-use stage). Close to 40 percent of CO2 emissions generated from extracting virgin materials can be saved by substituting with recycled material.4
Recycling (and reuse) are the final stages necessary to close the loop in a circular economy – and therefore, recycling simply cannot be disregarded.
Recyclability was key when designing RE-4. One way to ensure recyclability is keeping a mono structure, which isn’t mixed with but made from one single material type. In a recycling context, RE-4 has by EU regulated certification been categorised as a 100% recyclable mono-material, seeing that the concentration of the minerals doesn’t alter the regrinded pp or its density. Keeping the right density is important, as materials are often sorted in water by weight during the recycling process. And since RE-4 consists of 50 percent air, its density stays well below the maximum weight and can be processed together with other recyclable PP.
RE-4’s material structure is designed to fit into existing public waste collection systems – supporting EU’s recycling targets. Closing the loop with RE-4 will be an easy task; with its mono-structure yet hybrid function it can both follow the current PP stream and be detected as its own category with, among others, the NIR technology.
Offering a long list of end-applications, due to RE-4’s paper-like foldability and barrier properties, enables a streamlined collecting, sorting, and recycling process. As an example, an entire series of McDonald’s packaging including straws, burger boxes, cups, etc., could in fact be made from RE-4, which would generate unprecedented positive impacts on the corporate cost structures and environment.
McDonald’s could produce the entire packaging of a meal from RE-4, this way, making the transition from a linear to a circular consumption loop uncomplicated and cost-effective.
(4) 2015, Norden, Climate Benefits of Material Recycling