ITASCA, ILL. — Keurig Green Mountain Inc. will transition the highly popular, but somewhat controversial K-Cup product line to fully recyclable polypropylene.
But the change from a multi-layer design is going to take some time, according to Chief Sustainability Officer Monique Oxender.
That's a huge development in the now years-long discussion about the very convenient, but typically unrecyclable K-Cups that currently are made from multi layers of plastic and classified with a No. 7 resin recycling code.
Not only will K-Cup resin change over time, but Keurig Green Mountain also reported that recent testing at three recycling facilities show that a majority of the small cups actually make it through sortation equipment and find their way into bales of recycled plastic.
“This is a journey for us and what we're sharing starting today is the first steps of that journey. There is a lot of complexity to making this transition,” she said Sept. 16 at the Plastics Caps & Closures Conference in Itasca. “Because of the volume of caps — we're talking about multiple manufacturing facilities across North America — it is quite an undertaking to make a transition like this and to basically change our entire supply chain as well.”
Keurig Green Mountain previously has committed to making all K-Cups recyclable by 2020, and the sustainability officer said that promise is still in place.
As to how quickly the first cups will be made from PP and how long it will take to change all of the manufacturing to the new resin, she could not say at this point. “Stay tuned.
“We're not disclosing timelines, but we will be making significant progress each year before 2020,” Oxender said. “We're moving as fast as we possibly can.”
While switching from No. 7 to PP will make recycling much easier, Keurig Green Mountain also is aware that these little pods still have to find their way into and through recycling systems.
Research by the company this year in conjunction with KW Plastics Recycling Division of Troy, Ala., is proving that K-Cups can successfully travel through traditional recycling facilities.
“For about 10 years now we've been told they are too small to make it through the equipment,” Oxender said, with the implication that the cups would end up in different recycling streams like glass and paper because of their size.
But work at three materials recovery facilities showed that the majority of the cups introduced into the processing line with literally tons of other recyclables ultimately went where they were supposed to go.
“In our trials, which were large-scale trials, 70 percent of these small items are making it to the container line and are available for recovery. So there's value being left on the table for the MRF. There's value being left on the table for the reclaimers. There's an economic incentive to make some changes,” Oxender said.
Of the K-Cups that did not successfully travel through the MRFs, half ended up with paper and half ended up with glass.
Oxender called the 70 percent figure “pretty monumental.”
Changes at MRFs to help better capture the pods do not have to be expensive, Oxender said. They could include simply changing the speed of the line, changing the angle of certain sortation equipment or even just moving the location of optical sorting equipment, she said.
KW Plastics is a huge PP recycler and took about 600 pounds of test PP K-Cups to reprocess once they went through the MRFs.
“It's recyclable. It's recoverable. We have the demand for this. And we're ready to go. Put it in the recycling stream,” said Stephanie Baker, director of market development for KW Plastics. “It's a great material.”
K-Cups contain a paper filter, but that material was separated during the recycling process at KW Plastics, which includes grinding and washing the pods.
For the pods to be successfully recycled in the future, Oxender said the foil lids should be peeled off and the used contents dumped out before they are placed in recycling bins.
“Overall, we were very positive, very optimistic about this trial,” Baker said. “We went into it, I would say, pretty optimistic. But we went out of it at the end of the day ready to buy truckloads and truckloads and truckloads of this material.”