How do you feel about K-Cups? Is it a convenient way to brew a single cup of coffee, tea or cocoa? Or a wasteful, hard-to-recycle package?
The problem is that it's both. And because it's a highly successful product, that makes its manufacturer, Keurig Green Mountain Inc., a target for complaints from people who feel strongly about the environment.
So we've seen pressure from activists (and competitors) to make the little K-Cups more sustainable. Remember the K-Cup monster movie?
Keurig is working on a solution, and last week it gave a progress report at our Plastics Caps & Closures Conference in Itasca, Ill.
The company had a couple of significant announcements. First, that it plans to transition to an easier-to-recycle polypropylene pod, instead of the current multi-layer design.
That's a big step. Switching to PP will allow the product to carry a No. 5 resin recycling code, instead of a No. 7 (the catch-all “other” category that many consumers assume is not recyclable at all, and many community recycling programs won't accept).
I'm encouraged that a switch to PP would be considered a successful change to a more sustainable material. It wasn't too long ago that PP had a pretty dismal recycling record — not counting car batteries. But smart recyclers started to collect and reprocess PP that was finding its way into the recycling stream — syrup and some hot-fill bottles, and lots of caps and closures — and they found a decent market for the material.
That's thanks to plastics processors and end-users that were willing to use post-consumer PP in a variety of applications. It's a quiet but real success story for plastics recyclers in the past decade.
So using a No. 5 recycling code isn't just a meaningless bit of greenwashing. It could be a real step toward improved sustainability for Keurig.
And that's where the second announcement that the company made at the Caps conference comes in.
Keurig also reported that it worked with a major PP recycler and with three materials recovery facilities (MRFs), and found that — to some significant degree, at least — K-Cups already are recyclable.
The company put K-Cups in bales of recyclables and tested to see what would happen. The conventional wisdom was that they would contaminate the recycling stream, especially paper and glass. But the reality was that the majority made their way into bales of recycled plastic.
In fact, Stephanie Baker, director of market development for major recycler KW Plastics, called it “a great material,” and is eager to buy more.
This is just a step in a long process to make the K-Cup more sustainable. Keurig Chief Sustainability Officer Monique Oxender said the company has pledged to make all K-Cups recyclable by 2020. For now, if the cups started to find their way into the recycling stream in greater volumes, it really would be better if consumers would manually peel off the foil lids and dump the contents — coffee grounds or tea leaves, for example — before tossing them into the recycling bin.
That's a lot to ask from consumers, who really just want to recycle all plastics together without sorting or fussing. The plastics industry needs to keep that in mind — the goal should be to make all plastics recyclable.
I'm encouraged by the results so far, and we'll be watching for continued progress.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.