It looks for all the world like an ordinary foam coffee cup, but it is fully recyclable. Moreover, it can go in a microwave and can even be reused multiple times after numerous trips through a dish washer.

That's the claim to fame of a new cup made of #5 plastic polypropylene. Announced at the PMMI Pack Expo show, the Versalite cup is the product of Berry Plastics Group Inc., Evansville, Ind. Berry Rigid Open Top Div. president Adam Unfried says 80 billion coffee cups end up in landfills annually, and the company hopes its new cup will cut that figure drastically.

One reason for optimisim on this point is that besides being fully recyclable, the new cup can be put in a microwave and is reusable many times, even after numerous trips through a dishwasher. The durability comes from not only the polypropylene but also the use of construction methods not normally employed on paper and foam cups. For example, the cup is roll-constructed and its seams are super strong, claims Berry R&D VP Jason Palandino. Any graphics printed on the cups also are unlikely to wear off thanks to use of a reverse printing technique on a 10-color high-D flexo press.

The thermal performance of the Versalite cup comes from proprietary technology that Paladino is a bit cagey about revealing. In a nutshell, it involves infusing a cellular structure into a base of polypropylene to privide insulative properties. The resulting material has nearly the same thermal performance of an ordinary foam cup, the company says. Paladino says Berry has taken out six patents covering the material make-up and construction methods.

The cost of the new cups is said to be comparable to that of similar foam cups used in specialty coffee houses. But Berry says the Versalite cups have additional advantages for such retailers. For one thing, they stack about 20% more densely so stacks of cups occupy less space. Berry also says it now has two commercial customers and is in discussion with several quick-serve food chains and convenience stores.

In addition, other kinds of foods are likely to make use of the Versalite thermal technology. Berry says it is studying applications in ice cream products and other areas where insulation is a benefit.