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3 practical steps to creating a circular product

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Monique Oxender, Chief Sustainability Officer of Keurig Dr Pepper, visits a recycling facility to British Columbia. Source: Keurig Dr Pepper.

This article is sponsored by Keurig Dr Pepper.

The concept of a simple circular process that keeps material out of the waste stream is easy to understand and easy to favor. But simple is not easy. Embracing circular economy practices is a complex challenge that encompasses the entire value chain of a product and requires collaboration across the public and private sectors. So, what does it take to move from vision to action in really "closing the loop"?

At Keurig Dr Pepper (KDP), we believe that to create a truly circular product and support truly circular systems, three main steps must be taken: 

  1. Start with smart design; 
  2. Invest in proper infrastructure; and 
  3. Buy it back for meaningful reuse. 

We have a wide variety of packaging across our portfolio of more than 125 owned, licensed and partner beverage brands — everything from Dr Pepper soda bottles to Canada Dry sparkling water cans to Keurig K-Cup pods. Some of our products have been mainstays in residential recycling programs for decades, such as aluminum cans and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles, but others are newer to recycling systems, including recyclable polypropylene K-Cup pods. This means we can’t approach designing for the circular economy with a one-size-fits-all mentality. 

Circular processes must be ingrained from the start with design

The path to a circular product starts with material selection, a seemingly simple step that must account for many requirements. For almost all of our packaging, the material first and foremost must be fit for purpose and allow for food-grade contact. This is sort of a no-brainer when thinking about the containers your beverages come in, but that becomes a crucial sticking point when designing for a circular product. It’s not just a question of if the material is recyclable, but can the product make its way through a complex recycling system and be reused as post-consumer recycled (PCR) content? 

Details are important to answering this question. The colors used and how caps and labels are designed greatly affect how well our packaging can fit into a circular system. As an example, KDP recently switched its A&W root beer and cream soda bottles from amber-colored plastic to clear, as clear plastics warrant more value to recyclers, as they are the most versatile for reuse. Additionally, we’re taking action by expanding the space we allocate to recycling instructions on our bottle labels and other packaging in order to make the act of recycling more visible to our consumers.

Investing in infrastructure

The next critical stage in ensuring a closed loop for packaging is infrastructure support. There are about 20,000 municipalities in the U.S., with no standardized guidelines on infrastructure or acceptance policies for recycling. This disparate system means that improvements are needed in hundreds of Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) that serve these programs to consistently accept, sort and recycle the range of recyclable products and packages commonly used at home, at work and on the go. Those players that produce large volumes of recyclable materials need to become leaders in ensuring that they can be part of a closed loop system. 

Polypropylene plastic — which KDP’s new recyclable K-Cup pods are made from — is labeled as "check locally" for recyclability, as select communities do not yet accept or sort for polypropylene, often due to outdated infrastructure. Earlier this year, KDP co-founded The Recycling Partnership’s Polypropylene Recycling Coalition as its largest investor, committing $10 million to improve infrastructure for better, more efficient polypropylene sortation and processing across the country. 

Improvements also need to be made to ensure that even commonly accepted materials — such as PET bottles and aluminum cans — can complete a circular journey every time. Current beverage container recycling rates are only less than 30 percent in the U.S. Consumers need to be educated and inspired to recycle bottles and cans with every use, in order to increase the volume of materials that actually get recycled. At the same time, investments are needed to improve sorting, processing and collection in areas with infrastructure gaps. 

To boost recycling rates and create a stronger supply of quality recycled PET (rPET), KDP invested a collective $100 million alongside its beverage industry peers to fund the American Beverage Association’s Every Bottle Back initiative. The program’s first three grants invested almost $4 million in communities in Texas, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, providing upgrades to recycling infrastructure at local MRFs and improvements to recycling programs for hundreds of thousands of households, along with improved consumer education materials to help support "recycle right" behaviors. 

Driving demand for recycled supply

MRFs need a solid business case to make investments to upgrade their facilities. This often leads to decisions on what they will accept and sort in their facilities based on the market value of the materials they can sell. Commitments from companies to reduce the use of new materials in packaging and instead leverage recycled materials are essential to driving an end-market demand for post-consumer recycled materials — and therefore provide MRFs the economic incentive they need to make upgrades. 

When determining how to take the final step in "closing the loop," KDP decided that it wanted to go big, not go home, which is why its first brands to debut with 100 percent recycled plastic bottles were not small, limited edition runs, but the portfolio-wide transition for two of the company’s largest brands.

Our team recently announced Snapple is transitioning to 100 percent recycled plastic bottles, along with the CORE brand, which will eliminate the need to make tens of millions of pounds of virgin plastic annually and increase KDP’s demand for and use of post-consumer recycled PET supply. For this latest update, the company is also incorporating even smarter, sustainability-forward design by replacing the brand’s metal caps with plastic ones. While Snapple’s iconic "pop!" may go away, this will allow the entire package — bottle and cap — to be recycled, making it a one-step, easier process for consumers to recycle each bottle.

KDP set a goal that 30 percent of packaging across its portfolio would be made with PCR materials by 2025 — and the company is right on track to achieve it. Commitments such as these give confidence to MRFs that there will be buyers for their recycled materials if they invest in facility and equipment upgrades, meaning they’ll see solid returns as a result.

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Snapple's recently unveiled rebrand, with new bottles made from 100 percent recycled plastic. Source: Keurig Dr Pepper.

Brands are continuing to strive for circular solutions, as they understand it is the right thing to do for the environment, their business and their consumers. The lesson is that when approaching big problems such as eliminating packaging waste, action must be taken along all stages of the "loop" in order to truly close it. 

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