December 22, 2014

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Sustainability Ambitions: Keurig Green Mountain Commits to a Recyclable K-Cup® Pack by 2020

Keurig Green Mountain, Inc. on recycling: they want to hear from you.

Monique_oxender

By Monique Oxender, Senior Director of Sustainability, Keurig Green Mountain

This is the second of a three-part blog series that will take readers behind the scenes on Keurig Green Mountain, Inc.’s sustainability commitments. The series coincides with the launch of Keurig Green Mountain’s fiscal 2013 Sustainability Report and its 2020 sustainability targets. Today’s post is authored by Senior Director of Sustainability Monique Oxender.

I joined Keurig Green Mountain, Inc. – formerly Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc. – nearly two years ago to help drive the company’s sustainability strategy. I was drawn to the company’s impressive legacy of corporate social responsibility and its aspiration to improve the world through the power of business. After years of working to integrate sustainability into the global supply chain at the Ford Motor Company, I was ready to support the mission at Keurig Green Mountain – especially as the company embraced beverage systems as a central focus of the business and with that, technology and various manufacturing processes.

While the company has gone through significant changes since 2012, its commitment to sustainability has endured and we are demonstrating that in new and exciting ways. We commit to both give back AND Keurig-2020-Targetstake less—meaning use resources efficiently.

Within our 2013 Sustainability Report, we share our progress over the last year and introduce seven new targets under three sustainability practice areas – Resilient Supply Chain, Sustainable Products, and Thriving People and Communities, demonstrating where we want to be by 2020. When it comes to sustainable products, we’ve adopted three targets that will help us minimize environmental impacts – both in how our products are manufactured and how they are used:

  • Reducing the life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of our brewed beverages by 25 percent compared to our 2012 baseline;
  • Achieving zero waste-to-landfill at our owned and operated manufacturing and distribution facilities; and
  • Making 100 percent of our K-Cup packs recyclable by 2020.

They're not going to be easy targets but as Rick Peyser explained last week, we are up to the challenge and headed in the right direction.

Cross-functional Sustainability Leadership

We’ve embedded subject matter experts on sustainable business practices throughout the organization and established governance and operating structures to support coordinated activity. With a cross-functional Sustainability Leadership Committee at the center of decision-making, we are driving accountability for sustainable choices and behaviors into every core function. And each core function has something to contribute to the achievement of our 2020 goals.

Similar to the way we conduct Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) for our products, we’re seeking a deeper understanding of our impacts across our value chain enterprise-wide. To that end, we completed our first comprehensive GHG footprint analysis in early 2014 to help us identify and prioritize opportunities to reduce emissions, mitigate impacts and adapt across our value chain.

Water: Assessing Our Impact

We are also completing a comprehensive water footprint assessment. Water is a precious resource, and while our direct business today requires a relatively modest amount of water, it is of strategic importance to our business, our stakeholders, and the communities in which we operate. We’re proud that the Keurig® Brewing System enables the smart use of water – it uses water from the tap and only uses amounts of water that will be consumed. But water stewardship requires active participation at all levels of the value chain – and we're activating ourselves through new partnerships and workstreams this year to help create positive impact on both the quality and the availability of water.

There is no doubt that to most of our stakeholders, including our customers and consumers, reducing the impact of our products is the most important thing we can do as a responsible company. For this reason, we’ve set the bold target to make 100 percent of K-Cup packs recyclable by 2020.

K-Cup Packs: A Challenge and an Opportunity

As our CEO Brian Kelley points out, we must be transparent about our successes and challenges, and this seriesGMCR-K-Cups is our opportunity to do just that.

Addressing the environmental impact of our K-Cup® packs, while continuing to deliver the beverages our consumers love, is a critical priority for us – and by no means a new one. For the past several years, we’ve been actively working to meet this challenge. Currently, our K-Cup packs are not recyclable for a couple of reasons:

  1. First, the plastic cup must be separated from the lid and filter in order to empty the cup and recycle the plastic. Since the filter is sealed to the plastic cup, it makes the separation of the lid, filter and cup difficult.
  2. Second, the filter material is a blend of natural fibers and plastic, which prevents it from being recycled conventionally.

For years, we’ve used LCAs to inform our decisions and ensure we are concentrating our efforts on areas where we can make the biggest impact. While it comes as a surprise to most, used K-Cup pack disposal represents only a small portion of the total environmental impact of a K-Cup pack—around five percent. The more significant impacts are related to brewer use, coffee cultivation and the material used in the products’ packaging. It’s important to recognize these “hot spots” and fully consider the manufacturing and use impacts when we design products. To stay one step ahead, we are establishing a Design for Environment discipline that will incorporate environmental considerations into all our innovation, design and product supply processes.

A Future for Polypropylene (#5) Plastic

At this time, the plastic cups in the majority of our K-Cup packs are made with layers of varying materials, which qualify them as #7 plastic. While we’re encouraged by the increase in access to recycling for #7 plastics, end uses for reclaimed #7 plastic are low. Where possible, we have been scaling up our use of polypropylene (also known as #5) plastic in K-Cup packs, and we envision transitioning all of our K-Cup packs to polypropylene (#5) over time.

We believe polypropylene (#5), which is accepted by recyclers in about 60 percent of communities nationwide, is the best candidate among the six recyclable resins to perform well in our brewing system. This plastic is also the third most recycled plastic in the U.S., after PET (#1) and HDPE (#2) plastics, and is already used in common household items like yogurt and butter containers.

Today, we use polypropylene in five percent of all of our portion packs.

To reach our 2020 target, however, we are also exploring other innovation possibilities, such as the development of a biodegradable and/or compostable material that might be used successfully in a K-Cup® pack. We are even exploring biomimicry, a design discipline that looks to nature for inspiration to help solve tough design challenges.

Partnering for Success

None of this will come together without collaborating with other companies and partners facing similar challenges to uncover more sustainable solutions. Partnership is a deep value of our company and core to our business model.

For instance, we know that small items like K-Cup pack cups, bottle caps, toothbrushes, and others may not get sorted recycleand recycled accurately by recycling facilities due to their size. This varies by region and facility and is often contingent on the equipment used to sort materials at recycling facilities. To make sure that K-Cup packs can be effectively recycled in municipal recycling programs – which we believe should be the primary vehicle for materials recycling and recovery – we are working with recyclers, other companies, and groups like The Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition to understand the barriers to recycling and how we can develop solutions to address them.

We, like many others in our situation, have take-back programs in place as an interim solution, but are really seeking a robust recycling system for polypropylene (#5) plastics that includes active support from all sides—municipal governments, companies, consumers and recyclers.

It's going to be quite a journey – we'd love to hear from you on our approach. Leave a comment below or email us at csr@gmcr.com.

Next: How does Keurig Green Mountain engage employees to understand the company’s vision and values so they can help contribute to the company’s journey? VP for Talent, Learning & Organizational Development Jayne Johnson shares her perspective.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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