An interesting story from Vermont Public Radio that indicates the concerns about waste management officials about recyclable single serve pod claims.
Keurig has pledged to make all K-Cups recyclable by 2020. To be successful, they not only have to find a suitable material, but must address how their small size makes them difficult to sort at recycling facilities. STEVE ZIND
The pledge presents challenges for both Keurig and the recycling industry.
180 tons of material arrives daily at Chittenden Solid Waste District’s MRF — or multi-reuse facility.
Conveyors carry it through a series of steps designed to separate the glass, plastic, metal and paper, including hand sorting.
There’s always some material that either isn’t recyclable at all or that the system can’t handle because of its size or shape.
“This is where our K-Cups would be a problem for us,” says Facilities Manager and District Engineer Brian Wright. “A lot of things that aren’t recyclable show up here.”
Wright is standing near a pile of debris that includes colored container tops and bits of shredded paper. A quick examination turns up a few K-Cups.
“That’s all trash and that’s where K-Cups would likely wind up if they didn’t get crunched up and wind up in our glass as a contaminant,” he says.
Even if K-Cups were made from recyclable plastic, Wright says they can’t be sorted by the machinery used at MRFs and they’re too small for the hand sorters to catch them as they pass by on a conveyor belt. Objects must be at least 2" on two sides to be sorted properly.
The K-Cups end up in the 5 to 6 percent of material that is either inadvertently mixed in as contaminants in recyclables or that Chittenden Solid Waste District must haul to the landfill.
Contaminants can reduce the price the district gets for the recyclables it sells.
There are many other products that the system can’t handle because of their shape or size - shredded paper or plastic wrap, for example - but K-Cups are ubiquitous, thanks to the popularity of Keurig’s single serve brewers.
Two years ago, Keurig pledged to convert to recyclable K-Cups by 2020. To do that the company faces a number of challenges.
First, there’s determining if converting to widely recyclable polypropylene containers will affect the quality of the coffee inside, and whether it can stand up to the heat and pressure involved in brewing with a K-Cup.
“That’s exactly where we are right now, is getting the right combination of materials in construction, and then performance in the brewer,” says Monique Oxender, Keurig’s chief sustainability officer.
Polypropylene is already used in the larger pods and other packages designed for the new Keurig 2.0 brewers.
But many home users own popular Keurig brewers that only accept the smaller more familiar sized K-Cups.
As Keurig works to change the materials it uses, its constrained by the fact that it can’t change their size.
Oxender says she’s familiar with the concerns expressed by solid waste districts that K-Cups are too small for their sorting systems.
“We’ve been told anecdotally for 10 years, no matter what you do, it’s not going to increase the recyclability because it’s not going to be able to make it through the equipment set up,” she says.
But Keurig did some testing and found many more K-Cups make it through the sorting process than originally believed. The company went to three MRF facilities and mixed tens of thousands of K-Cups with 70 tons of material.
“Seventy percent of what we put in was actually making it to the container line, which is a monumental difference than the assumption we went in with,” says Oxender.
She says that once K-Cups are made from recyclable plastic, making sure they make it through the MRFs won’t be as significant a problem as once thought.
“Maybe it’s more around the placement of the equipment, maybe it’s more around the speed of the belt,” says Oxender.
Michele Morris, business outreach coordinator with Chittenden Solid Waste District, says it’s not clear that existing technology can actually capture the nearly one-third of K-Cups that weren’t sorted properly by MRFs in the Kuerig tests.
Morris says even a simple step like slowing a conveyor belt affects the productivity of a MRF.
She says it will also be a challenge to get consumers to separate and clean the K-Cups before they pack them off to a recycler.
Morris gives Keurig credit for talking with the recycling industry about concerns over K-Cups, but she wants to make sure the company sees recycling as something more than using the right materials.
“From what I heard they seem to focus very strongly on what the material is to the exclusion of other considerations,’ says Morris.
She says unless an item can get through sorting process at Chittenden Solid Waste and other MRFs, it doesn’t really meet the definition of recyclable, no matter what material it’s made from.
“Are you defining it by the fact that it is material that some of the country has access to recycling or are you defining it by the real world, boots-on the ground-definition of what it takes to get an item from a consumers hand to a market that can capture that material?” she says.
Keurig says it is committed to making sure K-Cups meet real-world recycling requirements by 2020, and the company says it is working with the recycling community to bring about system-wide changes, improve the market for the materials collected and educate consumers about recycling.