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NextGen Cup Challenge Takes First Step to Revolutionize the Paper Cup

  • Date: 10 October 2018

It’s no secret that as the world’s population continues to rise, so does our demand on its resources. Between growing incomes and the need to feed more people, the rate of consumption will continue to far outpace the systems necessary to manage this consumption. Because our waste systems simply can’t keep up, uncollected or leaked waste will continue to wreak havoc on the environment. Litter doesn’t just affect the beauty of our environment – it affects the health of ecosystems, biodiversity, and humans alike.

At World Wildlife Fund (WWF) we work to stop the flow of waste into nature, but we realize that changes are needed earlier in the material management system to eliminate the potential for massive downstream effects even before they become an issue. We need to develop innovative solutions that work to improve the entire system from the earliest stages of product development.

WWF’s Cascading Materials Vision is the foundation for what a holistic material management solution looks like. We’ve recently joined the NextGen Cup Consortium, led by Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy and in cooperation with founding partners Starbucks and McDonalds, to help bring part of this vision to life through a multi-year initiative.

Launching this week is the Consortium’s inaugural initiative, the NextGen Cup Challenge, which will seek to transform one of the most recognizable single-use items: the paper cup. The challenge, managed by OpenIDEO, aims to catalyze ideation and action leading to the adoption of a new, sustainable, single-use cup that can be recycled or composted on a global scale. 

The challenge will analyze the cup as part of the larger system it fits into and designers will strive to create a new fiber cup that is one part of a more sustainable global waste management strategy.

While single-use cups are only part of our waste problem, this challenge is the Consortium’s first step in revolutionizing the recovery of materials in the packaging industry.

Why is this challenge necessary?

Most paper cups distributed today are sent to a landfill. Therefore, a critical piece of the challenge is designing a cup that can be recovered at the highest scale globally and across a range of regions that have different infrastructure systems. Ultimately the greenest cup is the one you bring with you, but until this practice becomes a cultural norm, we need to make sure our fast-moving consumer cups have minimal environmental impacts.

We produce over 250 billion paper cups each year. While these cups must always meet health and safety standards and be convenient, lightweight, printable, durable, and functional across a wide range of temperatures, there has never been enough pressure to source and produce these cups in a sustainable way. This challenge is necessary because the current cup is created and used on such a large scale that it has enormous waste management impacts. In addition, we are wasting valuable resources that could be given new life and we are constantly demanding virgin materials to produce more cups.

Technically, traditional paper cups (as well as almost anything), can be recycled if broken down physically or chemically. However, for recycling to actually occur on a meaningful scale, there must be value for the recovered material. The economics of recovery must be such that the value of the re-processed material is still higher than the costs of re-processing. In addition, there needs to be a large enough volume of the specific material to make it profitable. Therefore, the more uniformity in sustainable packaging materials, the easier it will be for a global system to recapture the value of the material.

Why is WWF involved?

Progress towards a global system of material recovery is exceptionally difficult due to the scale of the issue and the number of stakeholders that must be involved to achieve meaningful results. WWF not only recognizes the scale of this problem but also the enormous potential for positive change. As the world population grows, so does demand for goods and packaging and our natural resources suffer. Items such as paper cups are thrown away every day without regard to their potential value in a circular economy. Recovering materials such as single-use fiber cups means taking advantage of an opportunity to do more with less.

WWF serves as an advisory partner on the NextGen Cup Challenge because we look at environmental issues from a broad and comprehensive lens. WWF will provide guidance throughout the competition to ensure that as one environmental issue is being solved, others are not created. WWF’S ability to recognize and evaluate tradeoffs will help inform decisions made by the NextGen Cup Consortium and the team at WWF is already at work helping establish the criteria for a successful and sustainable fiber cup.

Join the challenge! Here’s how:

The NextGen Cup Challenge will officially launch on October 9 when entrepreneurs, designers, and companies are encouraged to submit proposals. Several phases, including reviews and refinement, will occur before the top ideas are announced in February 2019.

Moving Forward

The NextGen Consortium is actively looking to partner with other companies, as they recognize that increased support from other partners will trigger market signals that reverberate throughout the entire value chain. The paper cup is one of those challenging single use items whose re-design for recovery can open the door for wide-scale recovery of other single-use packaging. We know that the global solution to material waste will not be successful through individual attempts at solutions. We must collaborate on a systems approach to maximize our collective potential for success. We believe that, by inviting the full suite of actors to the table, the NextGen Consortium is talking strides towards a promising solution to single-use material waste.

To stay informed as the NextGen Cup challenge progresses, check out https://nextgenconsortium.com

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