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Interview: Monique Oxender Walks Us Through Keurig’s New Sustainability Report

RP Siegel | Tuesday March 25th, 2014 | 6 Comments

Green mountain keurigGreen Mountain Coffee has been a very busy place lately. For starters, the company announced a major deal with Coca-Cola which will focus on bringing single–serving, brew-at-home technology to the soft drink market — a story we covered last month. The company has now changed its name to Keurig Green Mountain, Inc., though it maintains the two brands, Keurig and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters on separate websites and product lines.

In last month’s story we wrote about some of the impacts of this single-serving wave that has been taking the world by storm, pointing out areas where they will clearly make things better, such as moving less water around, and places where there might be some added impact, such as more packaging. I had not seen a lifecycle analysis (LCA) of the Keurig system, so I could not quantify its impact.

Now, with the release of their 2013 Sustainability Report, we have some of those details, at least for the K-Cup coffee system. (A separate LCA is being performed for the K-Cup soft drink system, which was not ready at press time.) Altogether, they completed three different LCAs: one for the K-Cup Pack, compared to conventional coffee packaging; one for the Keurig K40 brewer appliance, compared with conventional batch-type coffee makers; and one for a cup of iced tea made with a Keurig Single Cup brewer, compared with a ready-to-drink iced tea beverage in either a glass or plastic bottle.

Here’s what they found:

  • The global warming potential for the K-Cup Pack is evenly divided between cultivation, packaging and consumption at around 25 percent each.
  • Primary energy demand is highest for packaging at 36 percent, followed by 22 to 30 percent in the end use/consumption phase.
  • Single-serve coffee tends to be dumped down the drain less often when compared to a brewed full pot, which wastes up to 15 percent of the brewed coffee on average.

We can see from this that the packaging does indeed have an impact. We will come back to that later.

Assessment results of the brewer appliance were not quantified, but the “hot spots” found were the energy consumption during the use phase and the material and energy impacts associated with the circuit boards.

As one might expect the brew-over-ice system compared favorably with pre-packaged iced tea, both in plastic or glass bottles, though results were not quantified.

There were other significant disclosures in the report. I spoke with Monique Oxender, who leads Keurig Green Mountain, Inc. in their efforts to “Brew a Better World,” about the report. She was on the line with Sandy Yusen, Keurig Green Mountain’s director of community relations/corporate communications.

TriplePundit: What are some of the highlights of the report as you see it?

Monique Oxender: Among our newly announced 2020 goals, the company expects to engage 1 million people in the company’s manufacturing and agriculture supply chains to significantly improve their livelihoods.

3p: What kinds of actions does that entail?

MO: They are aimed primarily at food security needs. That includes everything from building garden plots, to improved access to water, to increased resiliency through other means of disposable income, as well as life skills training for our factory workers. Climate resiliency is becoming increasingly important as disrupted temperature and rainfall patterns often lead to lower yields.

3p: You mention La Roya, in the report. Can you talk about that?

MO: That is a fungus that is also known as “coffee rust.” We are working in collaboration with other coffee companies to address this issue. We are supporting research to develop resistant varieties, as well as alternate crops, and farm renovation. This is a difficult problem that we can not solve alone.

3p: What other supply chain measures did you want to call attention to?

MO: We are committing to source 100 percent of primary agricultural and manufactured products according to established Keurig Green Mountain responsible sourcing guidelines.

3p: Nice. So let’s talk a little about the products and the packaging. You just announced a goal of making 100 percent of K-Cup packs recyclable. How will you achieve that?

MO: We are taking on some new tools, including Design for the Environment, which includes [a] lifecycle assessment (LCA).

We have set a goal of reducing lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of brewed beverages by 25 percent versus [a] 2012 baseline. And we plan to achieve zero waste-to-landfill at our owned and operated manufacturing and distribution facilities

3p: Is there anything else you’d like to highlight?

MO: Yes. We are going to help provide access to clean water to 1 million people … That ties in very nicely with the other announcement we are making this week.

We’re really excited about some of the partners we’re going to be working with this year related to some of the water impact that we perceive in the world. Not all of them are directly related to coffee communities or our own operations, but we’re looking at the entire system.

3p: According to the press release, there are four organizations: charity:water, Global Water Initiative, Raise-the-River, and American Rivers. You’re going to be lending support to them, to the tune of $11 million?

MO: That’s right. Global Water Initiative is actually a collaborative consisting of several NGO’s. The two main partners, CARE and Catholic Relief Services (CRS), are two of our longstanding partners in our supply chain work. So this is an outgrowth of work we have with them around coffee communities focused in Central America.

We also have a longstanding relationship with American Rivers. We do a lot of river cleanups and watershed restorations around our operational facilities. Our employees get 52 paid volunteer hour per year. So this engagement will take that to the next level. The other two are newer to us, charity:water, which is focused on awareness and education around clean drinking water on a broad scale, and Raise the River which is focused on reconnecting the Colorado River to the ocean.

3p: That sounds like some great work, which leads me to ask, what about your own water usage? I recently did a piece about Levi’s and their water strategy, and what I found with them, as is typical, water usage and consumption occur mainly in the agricultural production of raw material, creating the product in the factory, and in the consumption phase. What did you find in your own LCA?

MO: One thing we learned, on the consumer side, from the LCA we did on our Keurig, was that when coffee is brewed in a pot, there is typically 10 to 15 percent wasted and gets poured down the drain. So when you look at this from an LCA perspective, we’re saving somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 liters of water as the result of water-smart behavior made possible with our single-serving approach. We want to further explore the water efficiencies that can be gained from this single-serving model.

3p: What about the water footprint of your production process?

MO: That’s really interesting. It turns out that 99.4 percent of our water footprint is rain-fed in the cultivation and milling processes. Only 0.6 percent is extracted from the watershed (consumed), and a smaller portion of that is from our roasting facilities. We spray a tiny mist to cool the beans as they finish roasting, which must evaporate off, and that’s it. Beyond that, it’s just employees washing their hands.

Clearly, Green Mountain Keurig is working hard to understand their impacts and taking action to address them. The fact that the LCAs showed the impact of increased packaging has led them to move in the direction of 100 percent recyclable packaging, which seems to be the right thing to do.

Image courtesy of Green Mountain Keurig, Inc.

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He writes for numerous publications including Justmeans, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, and Energy Viewpoints. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining romp that is currently being adapted for the big screen. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


▼▼▼      6 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Tom

    Not impressed. I suppose producing the sustainability report is a positive step. But Keurig “Green” Mountain is helping consumers consume (and waste) yet more plastic. With a 2020 goal that “100% of K-cup® packs will be recyclable.” Wow, shooting so low. The other targets are equally unimpressive. But cmon, why set the bar so low? How about setting some real targets. Here’s a good goal from another company: to eliminate any negative impact Interface has on the environment by 2020.

    • A Guest

      I agree that Keurig’s 100% recyclable by 2020 goal is setting the bar low. However, Interface’s eliminate any negative impact on the environment goal by 2020 seems unrealistic and unmeasurable and therefore not a meaningful goal.

  • jd_x

    Okay, first: it’s going to take them 15+ years to make 100% of K-cups recyclable? That has got to be one of the weakest/lamest goals I have ever seen. It doesn’t take anywhere near that long to make packaging recyclable … if you really care. And in this case, they clearly don’t care since 15+ years is pathetic for a little cup.

    Second: they seem to be doing a lot to distract from their main problem (which is contributing to a single-use, throw-away culture) by trying to provide water to people in other countries. I mean, that’s great in theory, but I have always found it hypocritical to be trying to “save” those “helpless” people in Africa while meanwhile you are shitting in your own nest. I’m quite tired of companies in the industrialized world creating massive problems for the entire planet (see climate change) but then trying to “make up” for it by running some program in other countries. Instead of dealing with their own real problems, they are trying to distract us. So hypocritical ….

    Third, my biggest issue with companies like this is the post-hoc environmental justification for a business move that was clearly driven by profit and not environmental issues. Specifically, they didn’t buy up Keurig’s single-serve system because they were like, “Hey, we need to be more sustainable. Let’s find the most sustainable way to make and deliver coffee” and the it turned out in all their research they were led to Keurig. Instead, they found the one system that will make them the most money and *then* they try to post-hoc justify that somehow it just so happened to be the best environmental decision as well (since you don’t throw out as much leftover coffee, duh!). Uh-huh, sure. Funny how it always seems to work out like that.

    I’m deeply disappointed in GMCR’s entire business model and how they have completely fallen from grace in terms of having any legitimacy in the sustainability sphere. You can’t be such a major contributor to the horrendous disposable, throw-away culture we have created which is utterly polluting the planet and pretend like some other little tweaks you are doing in your supply chain makes up for it.

  • Darius Tay

    Not cool. I’m happy about GMCR’s commitment to green energy and fair trade and everything else but these ****ing throw away pods are an abomination. Even if they were recyclable, who actually recycles them? What is wrong with people who buy these stupid machines?

    I make phenomenal coffee in my Chemex and challenge any of these dang pods to a taste test – that goes for Nespresso too. Lazy, lazy waste of resources exactly when we should be consuming less, not more.

  • jmarvincampbell

    The best road to being “green” involves not using resources unnecessarily, and not creating a need to recycle something. And I can’t think of anything more unnecessary than generating a throw-away cup each and every time you make a cup of coffee. Not enough lipstick in the world to make this pig pretty.

  • JulieC

    Note that the sustainability report touts that the company recovered 4.7 million K-Cups last year (for waste-to-energy processing)…without noting that this is only 0.05% of the total they produced! Keurig does indeed have many excellent initiatives to support coffee-producing communities, but I completely agree with jd_x’s comments on their attempts to distract from the elephant in the room. More here:

    http://www.coffeehabitat.com/2014/03/greenwashing-at-keurig-green-mountain/