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The Key to Starbucks Cup Recycling: Mississippi River Pulp

Mississippi River Pulp is the only mill in the United States that can recycle fiber into cups, trays, and other items that come into contact with food. As we wrote earlier this week, Starbucks just finished a six-week pilot project with the pulp mill where it gathered 6,000 pounds of used cups and sent them to be recycled into new Starbucks cups. The experiment was successful—and Mississippi River Pulp has the capacity to scale up dramatically.

"We are a de-ink mill," explains Rob Garland, President and CEO of Mississippi River Pulp. "If you lived East of the Rockies, chances are your waste would come to our facility or a handful of others."

But unlike those other mills, Mississippi River Pulp has FDA approval to use its pulp in food and beverage applications. The approval was made possible by a patented process that eliminates optical brighteners—carcinogenic materials used in the paper-making process to make sheets look whiter.

"You can make food and beverage-quality stock out of virgin fiber as long as you don't introduce optical brighteners. We want to make recycled stock," Garland says.

In the Starbucks experiment, the mill combined the cups with other recovered paper material and converted it into FDA compliant de-inked pulp. Afterwards, the pulp was sent to a coated paperboard mill in Texas, converted into cupstock, and passed on to a cup plant in Ohio. The result: Starbucks' oft-stated goal of cup-to-cup recycling.

Garland says Mississippi River Pulp has capacity to spare if Starbucks follows through on the pilot project. The coffee chain already uses 10 percent Mississippi River Pulp-recycled fiber in its cups—-and the pulp mill is at eight percent of its capacity, at most. "We have more than enough capacity to handle a ramp up in the North American appetite for recycled content in food and beverage content applications for the next several years," Garland says.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.