Urbana's Solo Cup churns out 7.4 billion cups, lids a year


URBANA – Judging from the product line, the whole world seems to have Solo cups in its hands.

Most folks probably recognize the Solo name from plastic party cups sold at grocery stores and mass retailers. But Solo also makes private-label cups, and even more of its products pop up in the world of food service.

Fans at Busch Stadium in St. Louis sip from 32-ounce beer cups emblazoned with the St. Louis Cardinals logo. Those cups were produced and printed at Solo's factory in east Urbana.

That's also where clear plastic fruit-and-yogurt cups used at McDonald's are made. The plant makes imprinted cups for numerous other chains, including Starbucks, Panera Bread and Dunkin' Donuts.

The embossed cups used on Continental Airlines flights are made in Urbana. So are the wrapped cups found in Ramada Inn rooms.

Even the little plastic containers used to hold ketchup at many fast-food chains – known in the industry as souffle cups – are made in Urbana.

Altogether, the plant produces a staggering 7.4 billion cups, lids and containers each year, said plant manager Gene Beckler. In a single day, 30 million to 35 million units roll off the lines.

The cups, lids and containers produced by the Urbana plant are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or polystyrene, Beckler said.

Party cups are among the biggest sellers, he said, and another growth product is Solo "grips" cups, with indentations that fit the hands.

"Polyethylene is growing by leaps and bounds. The clear product line is much in demand," he said.

The Urbana plant dates from 1972, when Solo moved into the former Magnavox plant on East Main Street. For many years, Solo housed some of its corporate operations in Urbana, but those moved out in 2004 following the acquisition of Sweetheart Cup.

Since then, some manufacturing functions have moved into part of the corporate space. And as of last Tuesday, Solo's consumer customer-service group set up shop in Urbana, creating eight new positions in town. That group works with major retail customers, such as Wal-Mart, Target, Costco and Publix.

Altogether, Solo employs 276 people full time at the Urbana plant, supplemented by roughly 170 temporary workers, though that number fluctuates with the season.

Peak production tends to be in spring and summer, with Solo cups in high demand for picnics, parties, baseball games and other summer events.

In the 1970s, Solo became known for being one of the first producers of "throwaway" plastic cups. But Angie Chaplin, director of communications for the Highland Park-based company, said Solo is investigating "a whole new onslaught of environmentally friendly material" as possible substitutes for the plastics it uses.

Chaplin said those compostable or biodegradable materials remain under development, and the supply of raw ingredients for them is limited.

One substance being studied, Chaplin said, is polylactic acid made from corn, a material that could be used to produce clear plastic cups. But there's a drawback: the material shows some temperature sensitivity.

Solo's Urbana plant is located on 51 acres on the west side of Lierman Avenue between Main and Washington streets. It was among six Solo plants recently sold to a real estate investment company called iStar Financial. But Solo has a 20-year lease on the property, owns all the equipment there and is responsible for maintenance of the building, Beckler said.

The Urbana plant is "one of Solo's larger facilities in terms of volume," he added. Raw materials come in by rail, and finished products leave by truck, with 40 to 50 truckloads leaving each day.

Because of the machinery, the factory tends to be hot, even though it's cooled by a 300-ton air conditioner. The plant also tends to be noisy as a result of high-speed extruders, so employees wear earplugs.

If Solo ever needs the capacity, the Urbana plant can add on, Beckler said.

"We have all the plans in place," he said. "Eventually, I think it will happen."

Many of the workers in Urbana are longtime employees. Beckler is one of them, having been plant manager since his recruitment from Monsanto 28 years ago.

"I'm very fortunate to oversee a plant like this, and it was my choice (to stay here)," he said.

"I had opportunities to move on. I like Champaign-Urbana and the people."