Letters: Keurig

April 27, 2010

The following is a letter I wrote to a senior vice president at Keurig. Keurig is the maker of a single use coffee maker which I have at home, and really love. As I was doing my research for the 3 Cups series I saw a lot of issues, both with the machine and more specifically with the K-Cups. Rather than just ranting about it here, I decided to write a letter. Enjoy:

Keurig At Home Retail Division
John Whoriskey
Vice President & General Manager,
Keurig At Home Division

April 2, 2010
Dear Mr. Whoriskey
Let me start by saying I am a huge fan of the Keurig Coffee Brewing system and the K-Cups! For years I have looked for a reasonably priced, quick single cup machine that I can use at home and the Keurig has delivered! It is a great system, efficient and makes great coffee. I am also really pleased with the range of products that you have available in the K-Cup format. My wife and I enjoy mixing and matching new flavors in with our normal orders and really like the mail order set up.
I am writing because while I am a fan of the system and quality of the product I am really disappointed with your packaging and the potential environmental impacts. I am not writing to complain or tell you a sob story about how your products are killing the earth. Instead I would like to offer some comments and criticisms on the design and see if I might be able to help in redefining your packaging.
As a point of background, I am an architect and have spent the last decade working on making my own designs more sustainable while trying to maintain quality, keep costs down and deliver on time. I understand the real challenges and I think you will find my suggestions to be helpful.
Let’s start with the basic K-Cup. It is a great little device; package and filter all in one. If I have read your literature properly you include a foil top with a polyethylene layer, a paper filter (not sure of any additives) and a plastic container. The entire system is heat sealed with the coffee inside. Why not create an all paper K-cup; top, filter and container. Then package them in a 10-20 cup reusable sleeve. The sleeve could provide the light and air seal needed to maintain quality, but should be made primarily of a single recyclable material, perhaps HDPE (although I think there may be more sustainable alternatives) and an outer labeling system.  The K-Cup could then be a biodegradable product similar to a tea bag, but maintain the ease of use for the customer.
If the sleeve is designed appropriately it could also act as your outer packaging for small order delivery and retail sales. Once a customer is done with the sleeve they could just add a mail label and send it back to the company creating a nice closed loop, reducing inventory requirements and improving your bottom line. The best part about the sleeve is that it would quickly offer feedback to your company about how specific brands are selling and being consumed. If for instance the sleeves from one brew are coming back at a higher rate even though sales are steady with other products you will know that they are being consumed quicker and perhaps you should increase production. Similarly if a high selling brand’s sleeve is being returned slowly you may want to cut back on production. It is an interesting feedback loop to ponder.
In the short-term I would also suggest exploring a cardboard sleeve package system for the current K-Cup design. The boxes while stackable are inefficient and use more cardboard, paper and ink than necessary. You could overcome the stacking issue by using a hexagonal cardboard sleeve that would use approximately 2/3 of the material used in the typical box for 18 K-Cups. In addition when you send out large outer boxes for home delivery the box within a box doubles the amount of waste produced unnecessarily. I think that the packaging as a whole is excessive.
I realize that you have probably explored these possibilities previously and that your company like most are working on thin margins so making a dramatic changes would be difficult. I offer this as a spark that might encourage new conversation about how to continue to improve your product line while continuing to reduce your footprint on the earth. It is a tough challenge, but we all need to take steps to do the right thing.
In my own experience it is critical to find the balance between cost, quality, time and sustainability for every design. I have spent years working with organizations and individuals trying to help them create beautiful meaningful designs that provide everyday value without harm. It is not an easy task.
I hope you will share these thoughts with your R&D and Production teams. I would be happy to meet and talk with you or your staff further if you find this idea promising. Feel free to contact me via this email address or by mail.
Ralph Walker

Note: Personal addresses, email addresses and phone numbers have been deleted from this letter for privacy. Otherwise it is as sent to Keurig. If I get a response I will certainly share it here. To date I haven’t seen a response.

Here is the inital response I have recieved from Keurig.

Dear Ralph,
 Thank you for your email. We do appreciate your interest in our products and your feedback regarding our company’s “greenness”.
We will certainly pass along this information to the appropriate department and we thank you again for your recommendations.
Thank you.
Briana Keene
Keurig Customer Service
At Home Division
(866) 901-BREW (2739)


Letters: Commuter Hell

April 18, 2010

The following letter was sent to the Executive Director of NJ Transit via email on April 17, 2010.

April 17, 2010

NJ Transit Corporation

One Penn Plaza East

Newark NJ 07105

Attn: James Weinstein, Executive Director

Dear Mr. Weinstein,

I hope this letter finds you and your colleagues well. Let me begin by saying that I am a long time passenger of NJ Transit. I grew up in Summit and my family often used the trains into Manhattan to explore the city. Currently I live in Bloomfield and have used NJ Transit, specifically the Montclair rail line for the past five years to commute into and out of midtown Manhattan. I find the service comfortable and generally convenient and am pleased to continue to use it.

I am writing about a specific series of incidents that happened on April 15th in order to highlight more systemic issues and the ongoing erosion of service.

On April 15th I left my office to start my commute home at 4:30 pm. I had an appointment at 6:45 and needed to stop at my house before the appointment, so I left plenty of time. I arrived at Penn Station, New York and got on the scheduled 4:52 train to Montclair. Up until that point everything was normal.

At approximately 4:50 the train conductor came over the public address system (PA) and told us that there was an issue with the Amtrak signals and no one was moving in or out of New York Penn Station. He did not have information on how long service would be delayed. A few minutes later he came over the PA again to inform us that NJ transit would be cross honoring with buses and PATH. Next I received an email alert on my blackberry that said that service was delayed in and out of Penn Station. The communications, while incomplete at this point were very clear.

At 5:12 pm the conductor came over the PA and told us that the issue was not affecting Hoboken and that we may want to consider taking the PATH to Hoboken and traveling out of that station. Now I was potentially late for my appointment and so I left the train and headed over to the PATH station. Much to my chagrin there was a tremendous crush of people heading both into and out of Penn Station at the same time at the Seventh Avenue entrance; creating tremendous confusion and a potentially dangerous situation. It would have been very helpful to have an NJ Transit employee stationed at the top of the stairs leading into Penn Station announcing the issue, or alternately an electronic sign should be posted at the top of the same stairs. That step would have improved the trip for thousands of riders.

I reached the PATH station and traveled to Hoboken along with hundreds of other displaced commuters. The Port Authority was ill prepared for the volume of commuters who were spilling over from NJ Transit.  The turn-styles were a disaster. I chose to pay an additional fare rather than deal with the bottle neck that was created for people who were cross honoring tickets.

Once I arrived in Hoboken I boarded next available train to Newark Broad Street. The Montclair train I had hoped to take had already left and I was hoping that if service was restored I might be able to grab another train.

I arrived at Newark Broad Street at 6:05pm. I still had an opportunity to make my 6:45 appointment. At Newark Broad street the digital displays that show the trains coming in and out of the station showed everything as if it were on time. The entire display was wrong. The automated announcements that were coming on were announcing the wrong trains arriving and departing. There was a woman with an NJ Transit coat and clipboard, who appeared to be there to help clarify things, but she was to busy on her cell phone to bother to tell anyone what was going on. To top it off none of the conductors on the arriving and departing trains were making announcements about their trains because they figured the automated announcements were working.

At 6:15 an announcement came over the PA that the next Montclair line train, which had been scheduled for 6:08 was operating 72 minutes late! One hour and twelve minutes delayed. At this point I had no choice to cancel my appointment. I was frustrated, and tired and angry that the system had failed again. I raised the white flag, called my wife and asked her to pick me up at Newark Broad Street.

I share this horror story of a commute with you because it highlights a number of issues that occur every day on NJ Transit. My experience on NJ Transit on April 15th could have been improved a number of ways.

Maintenance issues. It seems that every week, if not every day there are considerable maintenance issues that impact the daily commute. While I recognize that NJ Transit is a huge complicated system involving thousands of pieces of equipment and systems there must be ways to reduce the impact of breakdowns and catastrophic failures that cripple the whole system. As with anything I expect it costs money to make all the necessary repairs, but I also think there must be ways to improve maintenance without huge costs. This has been a systemic issue for years. I don’t claim to fully understand the options available, but I would suggest an overhaul of the maintenance process to identify key failure points and proactive solutions to avoid future issues.

Partner issues. I understand that NJ Transit rides on Amtrak lines as you cross over into New York City. I also recognize that your services do not control how Amtrak manages their equipment. As a customer of NJ Transit I honestly do not care. I pay your corporation a fee to get me from point A to point B and to manage whatever partnerships are required to get there. All to often I hear train conductors come over and tell the passengers that there is a ‘Amtrak problem’ with the tunnel, or a piece of equipment. If Amtrak has a problem that impacts your ability to provide service I expect you, NJ Transit, to step up to the plate and find solutions. Don’t make excuses, take responsibility and fix the problems.

Communication issues. While the train crew on my first train of the evening did an exemplary job of keeping all of us informed that was the exception, not the rule. Staff and crews need to be better informed as to what is happening and have a clearer system on how to communicate with customers. If NJ Transit staff are stationed at key locations to assist riders they need to really know what is going on. Electronic communications in Newark Broad Street and Penn Station need to be improved and coordinated. These systems while great in normal service fail miserably during service interruptions or delays and the crowds quickly devolve into chaos. This creates frustrating, frightening and often unsafe conditions. Similarly conductors should expect that announcements need to be made at every stop.

Outreach and ongoing improvement. I am a subscriber to the NJ Transit alerts on my blackberry. They are generally a great thing and have assisted my commute many times. That system was not helpful on April 15th as I had already started my commute and was therefore in the system. It would be very helpful to consider the primary approaches to all major stations and provide signage and updates at key entry points. By expanding the information outward away from the track entries you will allow riders to divert prior to even entering the station, both improving flow in the station and saving time on everyone’s commute.

NJ Transit like all Mass Transit systems is a complicated and requires constant attention. As a customer of that system I expect a safe, comfortable ride and when issues arise I expect effective communications and reasonable alternatives. For the most part NJ Transit has been effective in achieving those goals, but events like the ones that transpired on April 15th highlight places where the system falls down. I hope that you find these suggestions helpful and will share them with your colleagues.

While it is ironic that these happened on the same day fare hikes were announced, I believe this is an opportunity. As more money flows into the system, I am hopeful that you will divert to address these issues. I am available if you or any of your colleagues would like to discuss any of these points further. I am also sharing this letter publically on blog idesert.wordpress.com and I would be happy to share any response I receive from NJ Transit there as well.

Thank you for your ongoing diligence.


Ralph Walker

Letters: Introduction

April 17, 2010

As a part of Igloos in the Desert I’ve decided to include some of the many letters that I write to various people about sustainability issues. Over the years I’ve found that the simple act of putting pen to paper with the intent of providing specific critique and potential solutions to issues is an effective way to make things happen.

One example I love, is when my wife and I bought our house a few years ago. We live on a quiet street that happens to be a tempting shortcut for traffic to a much used highway entrance. We would spend many a weekend afternoon sitting on our front porch watching cars whiz by in an effort to save a few seconds off their trip. We worried about the many children who lived nearby, and what would happen when we had our own children. Concerned enough, we decided to act by writing a simple pointed letter to our town representative and mayor.

About two weeks later, I was happily surprized to get a personal call from my representative asking for more information about the issue. We talked a bit and she came by one afternoon to see for herself. About two weeks after that we had a new speed limit sign on the street (ironically, in front of our house) and a larger police presence enforcing it for a few weeks.

Now the sign and the police presence didn’t completely solve the problem. We still have the occasional idiot who thinks the speed limit is 52 MPH not 25 MPH, but it has certainly improved.  Regardless, all of this transpired from a simple letter to the right people. The issue was identified, an improvement was offered and they took action.

In the past few years I have personally written dozens of letter to politicians, business people, colleagues, neighbors and friends. Starting now, I have decided not just to continue to write these letters, but to post them here and share the successes, and failures in getting someone’s attention about an issue. The goal is never to scold, chide or idly criticize, but instead to identify problems or issues and offer potential solutions. With any luck some of these letters will open a dialogue or send someone on a new path.

If my ideas resonate with you, or you have had a similar experience feel free to use the text of my letters and send them yourself, or better yet repurpose them based on your own experience. Email is just as good as an envelope and a stamp, in fact that is how almost all of my letters are sent now, but occasionally pen to paper is the best way to go. Use your own judgement there. If you do send a letter based on one of mine, please post about it. I would love to hear more stories about how this works out for you too.

A few notes:

  1. On all of my letters I include my personal address, phone number and email. I would suggest you do the same. I will not be including that information on these posts and similarly would suggest that you leave your personal information except an email address off any posts here.
  2. Typically, I try to send my letters to at least two people; someone near the top, and someone who is personally involved with the issue. For instance, in the letter to my town I included my Mayor and my local representative on the Town Council.  By doing this, I am usually able to gain traction quickly. I would suggest  you try the same.
  3. Please be sure to include names and title’s of the recipients on any letters you post, but again I would suggest you leave off address information.
  4. Finally, please send me updates if you get a response to your letter. I plan to do the same here.