By Dan Bolton
Hot cup sleeves nicely illustrate the point: Many beverage business essentials are inherently wasteful.
When Chicago-based LBP Manufacturing developed the now ubiquitous corrugated coffee sleeve in 1995, it was uncommon to see hot cups and sleeves made from recycled paper. Styrofoam was readily available and less expensive than a paper cup and sleeve. To save money, sleeves were thin and slim. This led coffee drinkers to routinely “double sleeve” (or worse, “double cup”) to protect their hands, multiplying waste and cost. To be competitive, paper cups bore the additional expense of marketing inks and designs. To reduce spills plastic lids became more sophisticated, costly and less easily re-purposed. Plastic stir sticks replaced spoons. Sugar cubes gave way to a colorful selection of four sweeteners in packets.
Starbucks estimates that 80% of the coffee it sells leaves the store with its customers. In their hand is a complicated single-use conveyance produced by the billions and discarded within minutes that can cost more than the coffee in the cup!
That’s not the sustainable ideal.
As a result sleeves became an early target for sustainability initiatives.
Beverage holders have evolved continuously since their invention (the basic 1991 Java Jacket design is referenced in 100 patents). The original Starbucks sleeves, introduced in 1997 and manufactured by LBP, were made from 60% post-consumer recycled content. Today LBP’s hot cup sleeves are made of 100% recycled fibers and readily accepted by municipalities with recycling programs. A single size fits many different cups. LBP’s second-generation sleeves use about 35% less material than the original with no loss of performance. LBP’s Eco line is compostable to Cedar Grove Composting* standards, and in turn biodegradable. To meet the needs of airlines and vendors that do not use sleeves, the company developed a cup with a 360-degree double-wall air chamber made of 25% recycled material, a high percentage for insulated double wall cups.
“Since Starbucks first rolled out EarthSleeve to the US and Canada in 2012, the cup sleeves have saved 21 million pounds of fiber, which correlates to more than 188,000 trees,” according to Starbucks. The company reports EarthSleeves use 18% less paper than their predecessor and contain 25% more recycled materials. “The reduced weight also reduces transportation costs and environmental impact. Estimated savings on paper in the (China-Asia Pacific Region) per year is more than 600,000 pounds (276,000 kilos),” reports Starbucks.
The development of sustainable coffee sleeves illustrates a task that never ends.
“I believe we are on a journey and that we have not arrived yet,” observes Brent Denniston s.v.p. business development and international operations at LBP Manufacturing. “As an industry overall, we are moving forward. I can tell you that at LBP sustainability is in the forefront of everything we do,” he said.
Along the way LBP has improved its efficiency in manufacturing sleeves, conserve energy and learned to re-purpose its own wastes.
“Sustainability is not a trend, it is becoming a cultural shift,” according to the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) which recently published a 136-page report on the sustainability marketplace: What’s Really Driving USA Consumer Engagement in Sustainability.
Single-serve brewers are found in nearly a third of American homes. Market penetration in Europe and Asia and South America is increasing. In the US coffee drinkers discard 1.7 billion capsules a month. Globally almost 50 billion capsules, made mostly of non-recyclable materials, will be discarded in 2015. There are currently enough capsules in landfills to circle the globe 12 times.
Capsules are cited by environmentalists as a wasteful convenience. Backlash has inspired shock videos like Kill The K-Cup #killthekcup, environmentalist blogs, media critics, and websites like TreeHugger that consider capsules to be “designed for unsustainability.” Adoption has slowed with brewer sales down 36%, according to Keurig Green Mountain.
LBP director of marketing Lauren Mikos said that “some of the newness has worn off.” While it is hard to quantify, the combination of social media criticism and consumer guilt has contributed to slowing sales.
Recycling coffee capsules is much more challenging than sleeves. Even readily usable aluminum capsules pose a problem as the coffee must be removed prior to composting and smelting.
LBP, Mother Parkers Tea & Coffee, Rogers Family Co., TreeHouse Foods, and others manufacture polypropylene rings and filters that can be recycled. These are improvements over composite plastics used by Keurig that are not recyclable. Adoption of eco-friendly capsules is modest because Keurig and its licensed partners hold an estimated 89% market share. The company has pledged to make its capsules recyclable by 2020.
“It’s incumbent on a brand to push the envelop in that space,” says Denniston. Like the others LBP is blazing an incremental path toward sustainability. Unlike the attainable targets established early in the 20-year evolution of coffee sleeves, when it comes to capsules there are fewer environmentally friendly options.
In most municipalities objects under two inches fall through the rotating trommel during the initial separation and are sent to landfills. Since capsules contain food waste, composting is the ideal but there are only 4,914 composting operations in the US of which 3,453 (70%) process yard trimmings. Only 347 accept food waste. Only 180 communities have instituted residential food scrap collection.
“Infrastructure in most states in the US in not fully developed yet to allow for compostable packaging to reach industrial compost facilities,” writes Julia Schifter, business development manager at flexible packaging manufacturer Tipa Corp.
She is hopeful that “more active engagement by brand owners, retailers and regulators may definitely succeed in creating the necessary waste collection infrastructure needed to collect these packages from end-users to the relevant compost facilities.”
Toronto-based Club Coffee is the first capsule manufacturer to develop a certified compostable capsule.
“Diverting products associated with food residuals away from disposal is complicated, and BPI certification is a critical piece of the process, ensuring that items will break down in a timely manner in the appropriate composting environment, and not have a negative impact on the quality of the finished compost,” according to Rhodes Yepsen, executive director, BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute).
“Until now, consumers have had no options other than adding single-serve pods to their garbage. In today’s market, some pods claim to be partially biodegradable, while others tout some recyclability – but none of those claims are backed by independent third-party validation,” says John Pigott, c.e.o. of Club Coffee.
Club and its brand partners now face the uphill task of convincing municipalities to accept their compostable capsules in the green waste stream. Some have expressed concern that a campaign to compost capsules will lead consumers to toss non-compostable capsules into the wrong bin.
ALSO: From Cup to Compost
As challenging as this sounds, capsules ultimately may be a better choice for the world’s environment than traditional brewed coffee for most coffee drinkers, suggests Denniston.
That’s the surprising finding of new research on the full environmental impacts of coffee throughout all steps of its life cycle from farm to processor to consumer to waste disposal.
Life Cycle Assessment of coffee consumption: comparison of single-serve coffee and bulk coffee brewing was released this spring by PAC, the Packaging Consortium.
This life cycle analysis (LCA) was researched by Quantis Canada, a recognized global leader on LCA. It examines the full range of environmental impacts of growing coffee, transporting it, processing it and its use and disposal by consumers – including on ecosystems, climate change and water.
The research found wasted coffee and electricity consumption during brewing and heating are the key parameters in the comparison between single-serve coffee and brewed bulk coffee, rather than packaging. It identifies three key benefits of single-serve coffee over traditional brewing of bulk coffee.
• Single-serve coffee uses an exact serving of fresh coffee in a controlled process – leading to minimal coffee wastage.
• Drip brewed coffee making is consumer controlled – consumers are more likely to prepare more brewed coffee than they need with the leftover coffee going down the kitchen sink.
• Bulk brewing systems typically use a hot plate to keep the coffee warm and can use more energy than single-serve systems.
How important is sustainability to customers?
“Sustainability means a lot of different things to different people,” said LBP’s Denniston. “How you verify that a company or product is sustainable depends many factors. Often there are no set standards to measure or verify sustainability and that is a challenge,” he said. Additionally “customer’s perceptions are frequently not aligned with reality,” according to Denniston.
NMI observed as early as 2008 that “while numerous companies are attempting to gain credibility as good corporate citizens, consumers are overwhelmed by the myriad of communications and are, at times, unable to distinguish the legitimacy. Some companies who are doing relatively little with respect to CSR (corporate social responsibility) are perceived as just as responsible as those spending millions of dollars incorporating sustainability into their businesses.”
NMI periodically queries a consumer panel of 150,000 participants in the US and 23 countries. The institute’s well-respected Sustainability Consumer Trends Database is considered the most comprehensive tool to measure integration of personal and planetary health across their lifestyles.
NMI discovered that sustainability really matters. According to NMI 86% of the public believes “we live in a wasteful society” with 84% reporting they now “save and reuse things.” NMI’s 13th Annual State of Sustainability in America survey found 71% of respondents more conscious of their impact on the environment and they are “trying to be more environmentally friendly.” The response is up from 64% in 2011.
Companies with a reputation for corporate responsibility find the general public is more likely to try their products and services (60%) and more likely to talk to family and friends about the company (46%) and less concerned about the price of their products (30%).
Sustainability is not just a desired activity, but a necessary strategy,” according to NMI.
“The bubble not only burst on the economy, but it burst on consumption. While the new economy has been a wake-up call, it has also fueled a realization that our consumption habits were less fulfilling than hoped,” observes NMI.
Almost all products and services going forward will need to consider consumer motivations regarding eco-friendliness. NMI predicts products that help consumers reduce their environmental impact (without compromising price, quality and convenience) will become more prevalent.
“The sourcing and ‘end life’ of packaging will become significantly more relevant as the product life cycle and waste impact are increasingly becoming part of consumers’ purchase decisions,” according to NMI.
Return on investment
Is there a return on investment (ROI) for companies that make sustainability central to their purpose?
Denniston makes the point that efficient manufacturing is just good business.
“LBP is vigilant in the selection and improvement of materials and processes used for our products, aiming to minimize our environmental footprint while maximizing product performance,” he said. “We practice environmental responsibility across the entire supply chain which enables us to provide solutions that are both responsible and economical,” he said.
Steve French, managing partner at NMI, sought to measure the return on investment in the institute’s latest report:
“Some uncertainty arises for companies in how to measure what type and how much of an impact, if any, these sustainable initiatives are having,” he said. “In essence, are these sustainable initiatives having a positive impact on the environment or the company and how can the impact be measured? Even further, have these initiatives transformed consumer perception regarding the company and, if so, are they measurable changes?”
French found a measurable return in several case studies.
Another indication of favorable returns for sustainability focused companies is the July acquisition of LBP and its US, Chinese and Polish manufacturing facilities by the Pritzker Group.
The price was not disclosed but Pritzker has a reputation for plucking jewels that it burnishes to a high gloss with its significant financial resources.
*Cedar Grove Composting results in a sustainable, recycled, nutrient rich soil amendments made from decomposed organic waste. Products are tested to comply with either ASTM D6400 or EN 13432 (standards for bio-plastics, co-polymers) or ASTM D6868 (plastics used as coatings on compostable substrates). Those that disintegrate are certified compostable.