One of the largest coffee and tea manufacturers in North America has introduced a single-serve beverage capsule intended to curb the waste created by one-cup brewer systems.
Mississauga, Ontario-based Mother Parkers Tea & Coffee introduced the recyclable EcoCups April 9 under its RealCup single-serve beverage brand. The polystyrene capsules are currently used to package loose-leaf tea; the company plans to sell recyclable coffee pods starting next year.
With the convenience of one-cup brewing systems comes a hefty share of waste. Brewers such as those sold under the popular Keurig brand use a small plastic cup to brew each cup of coffee or tea. Though the capsules contain recyclable or compostable elements — aluminum foil, plastic and organic waste in the form of tea leaves or coffee grounds — it's difficult to separate the components for processing, leaving spent K-Cups to collect in landfills.
“From the consumer perspective, they're fabulously convenient, but at the end of the day there's a lot of end-of-life waste for these individual capsules, and their components just end up in landfill,” said Bill VandenBygaart, vice president of business development at Mother Parkers.
Mother Parkers tackles this challenge with a product designed to be easily separated. To recycle a spent EcoCup, customers will snap off the top of the capsule, remove the filter and tea or coffee, then recycle the plastic cup anywhere No. 6 resin is accepted. Tea leaves can be easily separated for composting as well, VandenBygaart said.
“I think the thing that really makes EcoCups unique is literally you can hold the capsule in your hand, you snap the perforation in the lid with your thumb, and the components are easily separated,” VandenBygaart said.
Mother Parkers manufactures the cups at its facility in Mississauga. The company chose polystyrene because it allowed them to repurpose existing machines, said Liberatore Trombetta, director of innovation and technology at Mother Parkers. To make the product even more widely recyclable, the company chose to use a colorless resin with no barrier film.
“We made the decision just to go straight polystyrene so that it didn't get complicated with this other material, because it just becomes a bit more challenging then for processing and finding alternative outlets for it,” Trombetta said.
Other one-cup capsule makers are also taking steps toward creating a more sustainable brewing system. Keurig Green Mountain a couple years ago introduced a brewing system called the Vue using recyclable polypropylene cups that could be broken down by the consumer similar to the EcoCups model. The Vue, however, was unsuccessful in stores has since been discontinued, said Seth Golden, an analyst who follows the coffee industry.
“Where they made that leap, trying to make it more easily recyclable, the product line as a whole didn't sell well,” said Golden, who is co-founder of Capital Ladders Advisory Group.
Keurig has also committed to making its K-Cups fully recyclable by 2020. Its competitor Nespresso has established collection points for consumers to drop off their spent aluminum capsules instead of trashing them. And the Canadian Canterbury Coffee Corp. has developed a compostable K-Cup equivalent.
Though convenience is a strong selling point for consumers, the sustainability aspect is a growing concern, with some retailers even refusing to stock the machines because of their waste stream, Golden said.
“The consumer wants what the consumer wants, but there's a tipping point,” he said. “… There is a population out there, and it's a growing population, that is concerned about bottles and plastic being wasted continuously.”
And with millions of one-cup brewers already in homes throughout the world, creating a more sustainable option can have a big impact.
“It's to a scale that I think all of us would appreciate … that there's Mother Earth value, there's consumer value, there's recycler [value]… for anybody who's involved in this industry there's significant value in being able to help create solutions in this space,” VandenBygaart said.
Mother Parkers is fourth largest coffee roaster in North America, behind Folgers, Maxwell House and Starbucks, according to its website. Its U.S. operations are based in Fort Worth, Texas.