Starbucks And McDonald’s Are Trialling The Cups Of The Future!
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
McDonalds, Starbucks, Nestlé, Coca Cola; these are some of the biggest and most influential food and drink brands out there. They are also putting their combined resources behind a collective effort to tackle one of the biggest problems in their industry: the 250 billion fibre cups that end up in landfills every year, most of which will need 1000 years to biodegrade. Together, these hefty brands are aiming to create the ultimate disposable paper cup; one that can both be composted and recycled anywhere in the world.
The project, called the Next Gen Cup Challenge, was announced last July. Closed Loop Partners, an investment firm that focuses on sustainability and is running the competition, invited start-ups around the world to pitch their cup designs and new materials.
Since then, Closed Loop, with the assistance of the collaborative design platform OpenIdeo, has collected 500 submissions from 50 countries. Representatives from the food companies involved have picked the twelve most promising ideas to continue developing.
These lucky winners will share a $1 million grant and enter a virtual accelerator, working with factories and industry partners to test and mass-produce their cups. Then in September, they will begin real-world beta testing. Rather than finding one winner, it is quite likely that a few of these finalist companies will combine their technologies to produce one ultimate eco-cup.
The shortlisted technologies must take one of three basic approaches in their design. Some propose replacements to the polyethylene liner in paper cups. While polyethylene keeps paper waterproof and insulates the drink to keep it hot or cold, it is also the primary component that prevents most paper cups from being recycled or composted.
A second group of finalists will investigate radical new paper composites that require no liner, allowing them to biodegrade or be recycled easily.
The third category proposes a completely new direction; reusable cups that can be collected after their use. This may be through a scout’s honour system or subscription at your local Starbucks.
Bridget Croke, vice president of external affairs at Closed Loop Partners, explained:
“The opportunity for the most immediate solution is the liner. It doesn’t completely prohibit recycling in some markets, but it’s the biggest barrier to scaling recycling. If we can remove that barrier . . . it’s the quickest solution to get recyclable. And if the cup’s material is compostable, too, it gives flexibility market by market.” (Fast Company)
Over the course of the next few months, the finalists will find out if their cups can be made by the traditional cup supply chain through working directly with factories that partner with companies like McDonald’s. This element of the experimentation process is crucial; their designs need to be able to scale within the current manufacturing infrastructure as bespoke production methods are not applicable here. In line with this, the cups will also need to fit within the existing waste management system, that is to say they will need to be composed of a material that any recycler is happy to take (as recycling is ecologically preferable to composting).
Rebecca Zimmer, global director of environment at Starbucks, says:
“[Composting] s not a great environmental solution. We don’t want everyone throwing their packaging in their backyard. There will always be a greater environmental benefit to recovering the material [and using it to] develop more packaging, because it’s offsetting virgin resources. There’s not as much value in soil.”
Finally, the contestants must face the most pressing challenge when their designs are beta tested in September in pilot trials at restaurants, universities and stadiums: do they work?
In addition to trialling whether their cups can hold boiling liquid without the seam falling apart or resulting in saturation of the material, testers will also be looking for whether the cups change a product’s flavour.
Bruce Karas, leader of sustainability and environment for Coca-Cola North America, explained:
“At Coca-Cola, we’d take a cup out of the challenge and do sensory testing and make sure it doesn’t change the taste. We do that with every cup or container.”
Strictly speaking, Coca-Cola isn’t really in the business of selling disposable cups and therefore will likely take a back-seat in Next Gen Cup testing. McDonald’s, on the other hand, does buy a lot of cups. Alongside Starbucks, it distributes 4% of all cups worldwide each year and therefore will be at the forefront of putting Next Gen cups through their paces in the coming year. Marion Gross, McDonald’s chief supply chain officer for the United States, said:
“There’s a whole host of things we would be looking at from a performance standpoint, and we’d be using our existing standards and cups as a baseline, and understand if any of these innovations meet the current standard we have or beat those standards.”
Gross explained what they would be looking for in the testing process, saying:
“We’d also be looking for things like, does the cup have proper rigidity? Is it strong enough to withstand a period of time sitting in someone’s drink holder in the summer, in the winter when it’s cold? Does it keep the beverage hot for a reasonable amount of time, or does it keep a beverage cold? How does the ice melt? Does it water down the beverage sooner than customers would expect?”
Gross says it’s too early to tell if one cup design will be able to handle both cold drinks and hot coffees at McDonald’s or whether each drink will require its own specialised cup.
Although even the most perfect paper cup won’t fix everything for these companies, or indeed for the planet, this research is taking some rather significant steps in the right direction. Through this initiative, new technologies and materials are able to be developed and rigorously tested; one finalist has even developed a transparent plastic alternative from plants that could, in theory, be used for straws or cups.
There is no doubt that this is a daunting task for all of the developers to undertake. The Next Gen finalists must figure out how to attain proper performance, source appropriate materials, produce cups that are recyclable at scale and then face a final, unknowable commodity: will the consumers actually take to using the new super cup?
“My first reaction is, what does the customer think? And what does the customer want? We’re obsessed with what the customer wants and expects from McDonald’s,” says Gross. “Regardless of what the substrate is, if it’s not appealing to the customer, or they say this is too weird, it’s probably not going to rate very high.”
As they say, ‘The customer is always right’, so let’s hope in this case, the customer keeps the environment in mind when these cups hit the consumer-testing phase.