Last Wednesday was my first day as a Program Associate at CoRR and we spent the day doing a site visit at the United Corrstack pulp mill in Reading, PA. That day I got an exclusive look at the inner workings of the mill, including the roaring, steaming cauldron known as the “pulper,” but more on that later. Many mills refuse to take recyclable paper coffee cups, but United Corrstack is willing to accept them, so we wanted to see first-hand how the process works and have a conversation about it. This fits into the bigger picture at CoRR because we have been working since 2008 to divert paper foodservice packaging, such as coffee cups and burger clamshells, away from landfills and into paper mills like United Corrstack. CoRR is working on this issue from two angles: (1) how to deploy the infrastructure to get the recyclable material to the mills and (2) how to redesign paper coffee cups and other coated packaging items to make them even more compatible with common mill equipment, thus giving a higher value material for mills.
With this in mind, Lily Kelly, Matt de la Houssaye, and I headed to Reading.
We started the day (after the three hour drive from NYC) with an in-depth conversation with Art McLaughlin, General Manager of United Corrstack, and James Morgan, President and COO of Interstate Resources, Inc. The mill makes 100% post-consumer recycled content corrugated paper and is run on sustainable power from the Evergreen Community Power plant next door (which we also got to tour). Art and Jim described the paper making process in detail and were very candid about what inputs they did and did not prefer.
Recyclable paper cups fell within the category of items that Art and Jim would tolerate but not something that they would go out of their way to source. Jim pointed out a few problems with recycling paper coffee cups. Primarily, these cups present a “fundamental design flaw,” said Jim, because “the coating is intended in the cup to hold the fiber together in a heated environment” and heat and water are exactly the processes that pulp mills use to break down materials. Art and Jim were interested in seeing the product redesigned to increase the amount of pulp that can be extracted and to reduce/reformulate coatings, as well as new and financially feasible mechanical and chemistry processes on the mill end of the process to address these issues. I would say that United Corrstack is ambivalent about cups at the moment, but they are willing to process them because they see the environmental benefit of reducing landfilled waste and recovering the fiber, which is a big step.
After our discussion, we headed off with Art for a tour of the mill, paper coffee cups in hand so that we could throw them into the pulper ourselves. We started in the loading area, where trucks dropped off bales of OCC and mixed office paper, then to the conveyer belt that the bales are placed on. The mill uses approximately 7% mixed office paper and 93% Old Corrugated Cardboard (OCC). The wires on the bales are clipped, they move up the conveyor belt, and fall into the pulper. The pulper looks like a steaming cauldron of sludge and is probably one of the most terrifying things that I’ve ever seen. Imagine a churning pit of 140 degree bubbling liquid muck surrounded by ominous steam. The pictures do not do it justice. We threw our coffee cups into the cauldron, from a safe distance, and watched them immediately disappear into the vortex.
Next, Art explained the cleaning process that separates out contaminants based on weight and density using a centrifuge and screens. Then Art walked us through the loud steamy maze of rollers that the pulp runs through to reduce the water content and the quiet air-conditioned control room where all of the processes are carefully monitored. Lastly, we watched as the final product was sent through the press and dryer sections, was spun on to gigantic rolls of brown paper, and then on to smaller rolls that only weigh a few tons. What struck me most was how automated and efficient the process was.
I’m very excited to step into this role at CoRR, where – among other things – I will be working directly with mills to develop infrastructure to tolerate recyclable paper coffee cups now and at the same time developing a product that is more recyclable in the future. Overall, a great first day.