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Originally published August 21, 2010 at 8:00 PM | Page modified August 22, 2010 at 3:31 PM

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Coffee-cup recycling brims with obstacles

Toss out a coffee cup in most parts of the country, and it becomes landfill. Many areas do not recycle. Even when they do, most shun paper coffee cups because of their plastic accompaniments: the lid and the thin lining that protects cups from becoming soaked.

Seattle Times business reporter

Mixing in cups

SEATTLE IS ONE OF THE FEW areas that recycles coffee cups. They are put into bales of mixed paper, a grade that goes mostly to China. Here's the breakdown for distribution of mixed paper last year, when 11.8 million tons were produced:

China: 47%

U.S.: 35%

Korea: 5%

India: 3%

Source: Moore & Associates, Atlanta

Where cups are recycled and composted

MOST WASTE SYSTEMS IN NORTH AMERICA send coffee cups to landfills, including many of the 4 billion paper and plastic cups Starbucks goes through each year. Here are a few places that recycle and compost them instead:

Recycle paper cups: Seattle; Toronto; Marin County, Calif.; Boston (commercial only); Los Angeles (commercial only)

Compost paper cups: San Francisco; Bellingham; San Mateo, Calif. (commercial only); Winnipeg, Canada (in-store only)

Recycle plastic cups: Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Atlanta, New York City, Boston, Los Angeles

Source: Starbucks

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Toss out a coffee cup in most parts of the country, and it becomes landfill.

Many areas do not recycle. Even when they do, most shun paper coffee cups because of their plastic accompaniments: the lid and the thin lining that protects cups from becoming soaked.

Seattle is one of a handful of places that recycle coffee cups.

Starbucks wants to expand that by 2015, when its goal is for all the communities where it owns stores to be able to recycle coffee cups.

It's a grande order, considering Starbucks' reach and the 3 billion paper cups it goes through each year.

The challenge is to convince mills that coffee cups are decent fodder for boxes and other products they make. So far, mill executives remain skeptical, saying coffee cups take longer, and therefore cost more, to process than do other recycled items like cardboard boxes.

"Any time you're asking an industry to change the way it does things — and they have multimillion-dollar pieces of machinery in their mills — they need it to be proved," said Jim Hanna, Starbucks' director of environmental impact. "Once we prove there's a value to our cups, it will create market pull."

To that end, Starbucks has partnered with two mills in small-scale tests designed to show how easy it is to recycle cups. Early next year, it will send cups used at its Chicago stores to Green Bay, Wis., where a Georgia-Pacific paper mill will turn them into Starbucks napkins.

Last fall, it sent cups from seven stores in New York City to a nearby recycling facility to show how easily the cups are sorted by coffee-shop customers.

"Clean" and lidless

The cups came in "clean," with lids removed and coffee poured out, said Myles Cohen, president of Pratt Recycling, which runs the New York mill that did the test.

That does not mean they are the most welcome material.

"Anything that makes it difficult to break down the fibers — including a cardboard box with Scotch tape on it — requires more pulping time, and the longer the time, the less efficient the papermaking process is," Cohen said.

"I'm not saying it totally would not work, but it's less preferable than" a bale of corrugated boxes, Cohen said.

He is helping Starbucks locate mills that make other products and might be more receptive to coffee cups.

Mixed-paper trail

At recycling facilities, coffee cups typically become part of a fiber stream called mixed paper, one of the cheapest types of recycled paper that can include magazines, phone books and small amounts of office paper.

Seattle was one of the first places in the country to collect mixed paper from homes and to try to build a market for it. Now, the U.S. collects nearly 12 million tons of it a year.

Most U.S. mills that accept mixed paper will use no more than 10 percent, added to higher-quality fibers.

China buys the most mixed paper, almost half of what is collected in the U.S., according to Moore & Associates in Atlanta.

But even China's state-of-the-art mills can take only 20 to 40 percent mixed paper, said Peter Wang, chief executive of American Chung Nam (ACN) in Los Angeles, which supplies recycled paper to China.

And Chinese mills do not love coffee cups.

"It's not the best, because poly [coating], no matter how you look at it, has some weight, and you pay for poly at the end of the day. We cannot use that," Wang said.

Chinese customs officials are strict about not allowing materials to enter the country that have been contaminated by food.

Recycled milk and soda-pop bottles are sent to Indonesia and elsewhere to be cleaned before China will accept them, he said.

Used coffee cups have not been a problem, Wang said, probably because they are such a small portion of mixed paper that officials do not notice them.

Even recyclers that accept coffee cups, like Cascade Recycling Center in Woodinville, see few among the 500-plus tons of cans, bottles and papers that arrive each day.

That might be because coffee cups are a small part of what people throw away each day, or because they do not know to recycle them. Seattle did not begin publicizing the fact that coffee cups are recyclable until last year.

More cups also might roll into recycling centers now that the city requires cafes to provide customers with recycle and compost bins. This summer, Starbucks alone put bins into 90 Seattle stores.

One of Cascade's biggest concerns with coffee cups is that they be clean, said Rita Smith, community-education director for Waste Management in the Pacific Northwest, which runs the Cascade Recycling Center.

"Our position was to accept paper cups [along with milk cartons and other coated papers] and address the residue issue by saying, 'It needs to be clean, no matter what it is,'" Smith said.

People who drink coffee black can shake the cups out; cups with lattes or other milky drinks should be rinsed.

Removing lids is also important. Seattle is one of the few areas where the lids are recycled.

Composting option

Some cups can be composted, but they're rare.

Technology has improved so that compostable cups no longer melt when filled with hot coffee, but few shops carry them because they cost up to four times more than traditional cups.

Some compost systems, like the one in San Francisco, accept traditional cups.

The plastic linings are thrown away with other bits of plastic and unusable items after composting, said Adam Alberti, a spokesman for Recology, a waste company that owns Jepson Prairie Organics between the Bay Area and Sacramento.

Seattle's Cedar Grove Composting does not accept traditional coffee cups.

"We find them at the end of the process after somebody puts them in the wrong bin," said Susan Thoman, director of sales and marketing.

Even waste-company executives agree that the best solution is using a ceramic cup or travel mug, also known as durables.

"Choosing recyclable over durable takes about 20 times as much energy, with transportation, electricity, everything that goes into recycling an item," said Smith, of Waste Management.

"If you just use your own glass or mug, you're much further ahead than if you're composting or recycling."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

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