Zero Waste: Extended Producer Responsibility and the K-Cup

You may have heard the term Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). It has been around since the nineties, introduced first in Sweden by Thomas Lindhquist as “an environmental protection strategy to reach an environmental objective of a decreased total environmental impact of a product, by making the manufacturer of the product responsible for the entire life-cycle of the product and especially for the take-back, recycling and final disposal”, entertained by the Clinton administration shortly thereafter and championed as the best recycling idea to address the issue of waste reduction ever since.

Long before the terms zero waste or circular economy entered the conversation, the beginning to end concept of EPR was at the center of how best to address the growing environmental issues of waste reduction. So why haven’t we achieved this goal almost thirty years later?

How does EPR Work?

The concept of EPR has already been adopted by a variety of industries, albeit on a limited scale. Xerox and Ford engage in some type of feed-back loop by considering end-of-life waste as an asset. This type of thinking is only done with a full corporate buy-in, with leadership acceptance that the effort can turn a profit and understanding that this is more important beyond the public relation boost. This is a commitment that is still a rare commodity amongst manufacturers.

Beyond the idea buy-in, the focus on EPR begins with material selection. In a world where virgin material may be less expensive than recovered ingredients, the decision to embrace this change in the upstream manufacture of any product must be done with a firm coalition of consumers demanding better solutions, retailers owning their responsibility in the chain beyond simply looking for efficient back-of-store waste removal and government incentivizing beyond overreaching legislation that is often language soft.

Many of the products used by companies can be better utilized. This will also take a focused partnership that suggests improved relations between sellers and end users. From a corporation’s perspective, this added service, such as when a chemical supplier of cleaning products provides oversight about proper usage and ordering and ultimately educating and scoring efficiencies with the end-user. will save them money.  While this might impact the overall sales of the chemical cleaning company, it will, at least in theory, be seen as a strengthening of the relationship from a cost perspective and a longer-term commitment to that partnership. That too has a quantifiable savings. The cleaning chemical producer in turn will also impact their upstream relationships by insisting on better, more environmentally friendly ingredients.

Usage of products will also need to be visited as part of the process. Although sales of certain products remain the driving force behind capitalism (i.e. cars, appliances, electronics, carpets, etc.), leasing incentivizes the seller to understand the impact of current designs and components from a different perspective. The end-of-lease arrangement should not create waste if the manufacturer is focused on getting those used materials back. It may, as aside effect, reduce the planned obsolescence present in manufacturing since the fifties. In fact, leasing adds a critical component to the process of any recycling effort: convenience. End-of-lease agreements insist that leasee make the minimal amount of effort – simply return the used product to the leasor.

Companies can also look at creating products that have a recyclable life. This can be done through design with the understanding that nothing lasts forever. While the Supreme Court ruled on the rights of a company to be treated in public matters as an individual, those same companies should understand their broader responsibility to act as an individual with environmental responsibilities as well. This can be as simple as adding post consumer recyclables (PCRs) at the highest percentage possible. We would not be having the debate over banning plastic bags if all plastic bags and film contained 20% PCRs.

Starting Small

Impactful results depend on convenience. While unfortunate, it has proven the best way to get to the successful closed loop goal. Consider K-cups, those preloaded coffee/tea capsules that create not only convenience but a measured accuracy and consistency in your beverages. However convenient, the delivery system would be additionally wasteful if the K-cup could not be recycled. It can. But is it convenient?

Keurig Green Mountain approached the problem by encouraging the consumer to use local recycling systems curbside. They studied the issue of their plastic containers recyclability and determined that this was essentially a consumer issue. Many companies do unfortunately. Keurig Green Mountain users would need to remove the leftover coffee grounds and compost those items in the proper receptacles (if available in their neighborhoods) and clean the cup for curbside pick-up. The study they did suggested that 90% of what could be recycled actually made it through the material recycling facility (MRF) where the tests that were conducted. This was done to satisfy the size versus machinery compatibility hurdle. You can review that effort here.

A higher-end K-cup rival, Nespresso actually closed the loop, creating a true circular economic solution with their recycling effort. Consumers can get a bag free of charge from the website or from a wide range of local purveyors. The Nespresso user does not need to empty the grounds (a process that removes the convenience factor and relies on the consumer to sort, clean and recycle the empty pod). Instead, the entire aluminum pod, used grounds and all are deposited in a plastic pouch and sent via UPS to Nespresso. The return envelope, the grounds and the aluminum all reach the right recycler without further consumer involvement. Obviously the cost of all this is baked in to the product’s cost to the consumer. But the consumer does not seem to mind.

The Solution

On a grand scale, three things need to happen for our country to reach this sort of recycling/zero waste nirvana. The first will be corporate cooperation and the company’s ability to increase prices to reduce the same consumer’s waste removal costs. The second step will come from retailers such as Walmart, Kroger and Target and their insistence on the inclusion of PCRs as an industry standard for the products they sell. Twenty percent PCR material inclusion would shift the needle dramatically. The concerted pressure to insist that manufacturers purchase PCRs would make the material pricing competitive enough to allow a retooling of current processes. Currently, PCRs cannot compete against virgin materials. And lastly, local governments need to embrace innovation instead of allowing local business lobbies to dictate the legislation.

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