BioCycle July 2007, Vol. 48, No. 7, p. 48
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, which sells more than 2.5 million cups of coffee daily, joined forces with International Paper to introduce a compostable coffee cup.
Molly Farrell Tucker
ON July 12, 2006, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR) and International Paper (IP) announced their successful collaboration in bringing a hot beverage cup made from all-natural materials to the market. The ecotainer™ lining for the cup is made from corn-based polylactic acid, a more environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional hot cups coated with polyethylene (PE) plastic.
The partnership began when GMCR was looking for a new supplier for its PE-based cups. “We were shopping around for a new cup vendor because the price of the cups we were buying had gone up,” says Paul Comey, Vice-President of environmental affairs for GMCR. “We sat down with International Paper and told them that we were interested in more than just pricing, that we were really interested in a nonpetroleum cup.” IP already was working with DaniMer Scientific and NatureWorks to develop the corn-based lining, and was testing it in its research and development laboratory.
It took about six months for GMCR to move its traditional cup line over to IP. “By the time it took us to get on board, International Paper was ready with the ecotainer™ cup,” says Comey. GMCR first tested the new cup in the store of one of its Vermont customers. “No one could tell the difference,” says Comey. “We did a survey and the results were neutral to positive.”
Next, a blind trial of five million cups was conducted over a six-month period. The cups were printed with the same design as GMCR’s polyethylene cups and put into the supply chain. “We figured if there was a problem we could recall the cups,” says Comey. Adds Ashley Bouldin, a Marketing Analyst with International Paper: “All IP cups have a control number stamped on the bottom, so we were able to track any complaints and determine if the new cups performed better or worse than the PE cups. The results showed they were comparable.” After the successful blind trial, GMCR changed the graphics on the cup to let all of its customers know that it was an ecotainer™ cup.
The cups are produced in a several-step process. NatureWorks, LLC manufactures the polylactic acid (PLA) from corn and sells it to DaniMer Scientific, LLC. DaniMer modifies the PLA and sells it to International Paper’s Coated Paperboard division. IP Coated Paperboard extrudes the PLA onto the paperboard and supplies the coated board to IP Foodservice. IP Foodservice converts the paperboard board into cups and food containers and sells these products to end markets. DaniMer holds trade secrets on the functionalization of PLA from NatureWorks, and IP has applied for process patents that cover the extrusion and cup forming technology.
GMCR did not directly invest in the costs of developing the new technology, but contributed in other ways. “We were a large enough company for International Paper to get the cup off of the ground,” notes Comey. “Green Mountain Coffee Roasters was able to order International Paper’s minimum cup run, and IP’s minimum runs are pretty big.” GMCR is also paying more for the ecotainer™cups than it had been for the traditional PE-coated cups, but has not raised its cup prices for customers. “The increased price that GMCR is paying for the cup is significant to our company,” says Comey. “When you make a new product, it is always more expensive, but in the long-term we expect it will be competitive as more and more cups are made and the price of oil continues to rise.”
The ecotainer™ is now the standard cup that GMCR sells to customers who buy cups directly from GMCR. However, not all of GMCR’s customers are using the cup. “Some of our very big customers put the Green Mountain Coffee Roaster logo on cups they purchase elsewhere,” says Comey. “They have more buying power than we do and can buy cups cheaper directly from a cup manufacturer. But anyone who buys cups from us gets the new cup.”
IP started selling ecotainer™ cups to other customers in October 2006. “We asked for four to five months of exclusivity and then wanted it available to the community,” says Comey. IP is currently producing the cups with custom prints for Portland Roasting, Batdorf & Bronson, Green Bean Coffee, Beanttrees, Eco-Products, Perkins Paper, Excellence Packaging Supply and other companies. The coffee roasting companies like Portland Roasting distribute the cups to coffee shops using their beans.
Comey adds that GMCR is working exclusively with IP’s laboratory on another container-related project. Currently, IP produces the noninsulated ecotainer™ hot cup and three sizes of food containers. Bouldin says the company is working toward launching a cold cup as well as a more sustainable lid option.
In May, IP and GMCR received a 2007 Sustainability Award from the Specialty Coffee Association of America for collaborating on bringing the ecotainer™ cup to market. According to the 2005 Technomic Disposable Packaging Assessment, consumers use 15 billion paper hot cups a year, and that figure is expected to increase to 23 billion by 2010. GMCR sells more than 2.5 million cups of coffee every day across the U.S. and 25 other countries. Comey says GMCR is consuming nearly 250,000 pounds less of nonrenewable petrochemical materials each year by switching to the ecotainer™ cup.
There are other environmental benefits as well. An average of 70 percent of the energy used to produce the paperboard for the cup comes from renewable resources, says Bouldin. “The paperboard mills use what would otherwise be biowaste, including bark and by-products of the papermaking process to fuel the power boilers,” she explains. The corn used to make NatureWorks PLA is grown in the U.S, and the PLA is produced in a greenhouse gas neutral environment, according to the company. “This status is achieved through a variety of approaches including purchase of green energy and carbon credits,” she adds.
Petroleum-based plastic coatings prevent traditional paper hot cups from being either compostable or biodegradable. The ecotainer™ corn coating is certified as compostable under American Society for Testing and Material Standards (ASTM) specifications, as well as by the Biodegradable Products Institute. However, IP and GMCR do not advertise the cup as biodegradable. “The term biodegradable implies that the cup will break down under the normal conditions of a landfill,” explains Bouldin. “Ecotainer™ is compostable, meaning that it will break down under the proper conditions found in the composting process – being heated to a certain temperature and coming into contact with organic matter.” She adds that Norcal Waste Systems in San Francisco is already accepting the cups and IP is working with Cedar Grove Composting in Seattle to develop a composting program.
July 25, 2007 | General
Paper Company And Coffee Roaster Launch new Product
BioCycle July 2007, Vol. 48, No. 7, p. 48