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)