Georgia-Pacific Professional is teaming up with Starbucks to test a recycling program that could go nationwide.

We’ve all heard the maxim, “reduce, reuse, recycle,” and now there’s a company that’s actively following its tenets and encouraging its customers to do the same.

Georgia-Pacific Professional, a company that produces paper products for the foodservice industry, along with other services, earlier this year teamed up with the National Restaurant Association to research the recycling practices of restaurant operators and the effects on consumer perceptions, traffic, and sales.

The company is also teaming up with Starbucks in a recycling trial that Georgia-Pacific Professional would love to expand if it’s successful.

John Mulcahy, vice president, strategy and category effectiveness, says Georgia-Pacific Professional is constantly looking for new ways to find fiber to manufacture its products.

He talks to RMGT:

How is Georgia-Pacific Professional working with the National Restaurant Association?

Our work with the National Restaurant Association has been an effort to better understand consumer and operator preferences and behaviors when it comes to increased recycling. There are materials that Georgia-Pacific Professional would find quite valuable in the waste streams if there is a supply chain that can get that waste paper to our recycled tissue mills at a cost that is competitive with our other sources of fiber.

So working with the NRA, we have found that both consumers and operators see benefit in the recycling process.

What are you doing with Starbucks?

We’re going through a period of experimental discovery with Starbucks. It’s been collecting used coffee cups at its [89] Chicago locations and we’ll use them as raw material—Georgia-Pacific’s mill in Green Bay, Wisconsin, will turn them into napkins.

We also get other products like boxes from grocery stores and they go into a recipe to make napkins.


What are some of the challenges with this?

There are three challenges to this:

1. Consumer behavior. You’re asking a consumer to do something different with their cup than they’ve done before—they put it into a different receptacle [for us to collect]. But we know most customers leave before they’ve finished their coffee so we have to look at how to expand this program.

2. The amount of contamination in those cups is something we have to overcome. So even though it’s supposed to be just cups and sleeves, there are lids and stirrers, etc. It has to make economic sense so that the recycling companies [who collect the cups] want to process them.

3. Once [the processed cups] get to the paper mill, are they pulpable? We’ve found that’s the smallest of the challenges. We can separate the polyethylene lining on the cup quite easily and we do like the product. We‘ve proven we can process it but for this to be viable long-term we need to prove we can get it to the mill with a cost that’s competitive with other forms of fiber.

We’re trying to prove this cost part. One of the big challenges we need right now is scale.

What are your goals with this recycling program?

Our goal is to have this in all Starbucks and other foodservice locations across the country.

We’ve been in discussion with some customers who have heard of it, but at this point we have not moved forward with a trial to include them.

Could it expand beyond cups?

It could include other products that foodservice facilities have, too—paper plates, fry scoops, sandwich boxes. There are lots of products they use that are paper based so if we can get them to our facility relatively clean and at a reasonable cost, we are interested in buying them. 

It’s not just about cups but is about all the material that’s going into the waste stream. Is there a more valuable use for that product than going into the landfill?

What do you think are the biggest problems in terms of sustainability in restaurants today?

The biggest problem is doing the right thing, but doing it in an economically viable way. The restaurant industry has made, and will continue to make, good decisions regarding sustainability. [Restaurants] have made a lot of progress in reducing their waste, in using their resources more efficiently.

For example, we’ve seen the size of napkins shrink, which helps with cost and waste. We have also seen [restaurants] limit the number of napkins their customers take.

Their customers are making purchasing decisions every day. They need to look at how their products make people’s lives better and use resources efficiently while providing that. It can be part of their marketing strategies. We try to help customers understand what the tradeoffs are. 

Feature, Leader Insights, Philanthropy, Starbucks