Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Reusing Keurig Single Serve K-Cups, A solution at last! And an innovation opportunity for GMCR!

Intrepid design innovators check out Kbrewlids a company which can help us all love coffee and the Keurig single brew system that much more.  Thanks for blogging about this first.  See their blog post. Check out the end of this post for a crazy innovative idea I have about bringing a lifecycle process and mentality to the K-Cup Single Brewing System and the customer user experience.

Over Three Billion K-Cups in the Environment Next Year?  
At this point you've seen them used in offices, grocery stores and at home.  Next year Green Mountain Coffee Roasters will make another gazillion of them, actually about three (3) billion K-Cups.  Based on 4th quarter sales of +/- 800 million units.  which are responsible for 90% of GMCR's profits. You know you can't recycle plastic K-cups don't you? At least most of them.  For the plastic ones there's not a recycling solution  as of yet. Presently this is not good for landfills and our environment.

Maybe you use the Keurig system at home.  (over 6% of you do these days in the US!) The food matter and plastic material used after a brew aren't compatible with recycling centers apparently, nor are they fully and truly compostable (yet!).  At least as a stop-gap measure, now you can take matters in your own hands literally and repack your k-cups yourself with the coffee you love most using the reusable metal foil lid.  One very bright spot is the debut of paper based delivery cups for the Celestial Seasooning GPublish Postreen Tea released earlier this fall.  Perhaps it's the shape of things to come.  But for now the vast majority of their product is made of plastic which is why reusing them with lids from companies like Krewlids is an interesting alternative to tossing them in the garbage.

It's an interesting idea.  However, you can also use the Keurig reusable cup as well, it's called My K-Cup and it's available for $17.95 from Keurig.  The reality of packing your own is you actually have to handle coffee.  Remember when you used to pour coffee grounds into white coffee filters after you ground up your coffee beans?

You can go down memory lane and recreate that experience every day and get a little closer to your food and its production.  Nothing is better than the smell of fresh ground coffee beans.  It's what I remember most fondly about the original Green Mountain Coffee Roasters retail coffee shops around Vermont where I grew up as a kid.  The sounds and smell of freshly roasted and ground coffee.  Wow!  It was dark and majestic in its olfactory wonder! But maybe not realistic to fully return to.  But it was a lot of work and it took time.

The Challenges of Convenience
Perhaps what's most unique about the Keurig Single cup brewing systems is how easy it is to use them and their overall convenience.   Like anything in life there's something gained and something lost with the onset of technological progress and convenience.  In our time starved world your  schedule wins in the ease of how well you make coffee one cup at a time.  You lose with not seeing, feeling the reality of interacting with your food and the time it takes to make a good cup of joe.  Losing sight of where your food comes from lessens ultimately our humanity I think.  Our environment ultimately loses with the burden of all that plastic sitting in landfills.

Inventing a Lifecycle Process
I wonder if GMCR could buy or companies like this and bring this sort of idea into their product lifecycle?  Building on that, I have a design and production challenge for GMCR product development specialists and marketers, why not borrow from the Netflix DVD play and return "playbook" and enhance the Keurig Single Serve user experience by designing a continuous loop into the buying, recycling and reusing process?  Customer loyalty and excitement is a key ingredient of why GMCR is so successful already and this would build upon that sustainability platform reinforcing positive good for the environment behavior.

If you want to pull those three billion plus K-cups out of the waste stream, why not develop a system developing beautiful and durable reusable k-cup box packaging with return shipping paid for by GMCR to make it easy to send your empty K-cups back to a regional manufacturing facility?  There they could be reprocessed and sent to factories for reuse in the manufacturing process with the K-cups given a second, third and even more lease on life?  Maybe if landfills charged for K-Cup disposal this would add incentive to shifting consumer and corporate behavior towards reuse.

Implementation of a Lifecycle Process
It could be built into the pricing.  Already, we're paying a premium for our pre-packaged K-cups.  Trust me you don't want to compare the cost per serving of traditional coffee brewed from a pot and K-cups.  K-cups are maybe competitive with buying coffee at coffee houses on the way to and from work, but not with brewing coffee at home.

While, you're paying a lot for the convenience already, the hidden costs are the elephant in the room.  The hidden environmental costs of having all of that waste plastic around afterwards for generations and the petroleum it takes to make them in the beginning is an aspect not often discussed.  Imagine trying to calculate the physical volume of the 3 billion estimated K-Cups to be produced next year and the impact on the environment, landfills and the amount of Oil?  Given how much air there would be between each piled K-Cup a cubic foot of them wouldn't contain as many as you might think.  It can't be good.

I know this lifecyle idea would add tons of complication to manufacturing and processing, reprocessing and maybe it's an impossible business idea.  But why not try?  We would only all benefit?  Not only now but for generations to come.  We're used to sending our DVD's back to Netflix or at least we did until we jumped onto the streaming Netflix bandwagon.  You can't stream coffee like you can least not yet.  Another example is Toner exchange at your place of business.  It was inconceivable a generation ago but here we are doing this.

With all challenges there are opportunities to innovate  
Here it would be inventing and investing into an reuse and recycling infrastructure.  But given the market strength of Coffee Roasters I bet there would be any number of smaller companies and vendors willing to develop and provide these kind of services and help move along this reuse process.  I think GMCR has everything thing to gain and nothing really to lose in the trying.  It's either this sort of idea or figuring out how to make the cups fully compost-able and/ or recyclable.  I'm not sure which is easier.

Even if this kind of idea didn't work out I bet some other user experience innovations would result we can't even imagine!  I know it's a well overused cliche but we've figured out how to go to the moon, we can figure out to create an effective and competitive K-Cup lifecycle loop and make it a win win for all!  I want to continue to love GMCR for what it does best, make great sustainable coffee products.

In the meanwhile, using reusable lids seems like a great first step.  If I were GMCR I would figure out how to do this well and bring it into the product family.  Or other outside companies will on their behalf.  That would be a lot of coffee and market share not made by Coffeeroasters and their affiliated companies in the not to distant future.  Simultaneously I'd suggest working really hard  to roll-out the paper based (hopefully) compostable K-Cups.  It's great to start with Green Tea but let's see them used with Coffee.

I think it's a better business choice to innovate and create new markets and services while strengthening sales and reinforcing sustainable behaviors.

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