Mysterious styrofoam cups baffle Keurig Green Mountain

Keurig Green Mountain officials say they're trying to track down the source of styrofoam coffee cups (right) that have replaced the company's branded paper cups (left) in many convenience stores in Washington County. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Keurig Green Mountain officials say they’re trying to track down the source of styrofoam coffee cups (right) that have replaced the company’s branded paper cups (left) in many convenience stores in Washington County. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Coffee drinkers around the Capital City were taken aback recently when they saw styrofoam cups for Green Mountain Coffee being sold at convenience stores. Company officials say they’re just as flummoxed by the reports.

Sandy Yusen, director of corporate communications and community relations for Keurig Green Mountain Inc., said she and the director of sustainability were working to find out where the styrofoam cups came from.

“Certainly, the cup is not our preferred option,” Yusen said. “We don’t believe it’s a reflection of our commitment to sustainability.”

Though the styrofoam cups bear the Green Mountain Coffee Roasters logo, they are not distributed by the firm, Yusen said. The only “fully branded” to-go cup the company offers is a so-called eco-tainer, developed with International Paper in 2006.

The paper cup is lined with a non-petroleum plastic made of corn. Under the right circumstances, it can decompose into organic matter, Yusen said.

Styrofoam takes much longer to break down, according to Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

Burns said both paper and styrofoam disposable cups typically end up in the landfill, where it’s difficult for anything to break down. What adds to his concerns about styrofoam is the toxicity of its manufacturing process.

“It’s kind of an environmental disaster,” Burns said.

Styrene, a chemical involved in the production of styrofoam, is on the federal list of hazardous substances most commonly found at Superfund sites. It’s a likely human carcinogen, according to the National Toxicology Program. And though naturally present in trace amounts, industrial use of the chemical can release styrene into the air, soil and water.

Burns said due to environmental and health concerns surrounding petroleum-based styrofoam, most restaurants and other food packagers have been moving away from it.

His concern is shared by Keurig Green Mountain, Yusen said.

“It does seem that a number of stores in this area have chosen a less sustainable cup option. We, too, are troubled by this,” she said.

Yusen said one of the company’s own employees had spotted the styrofoam cups, and that staff was already trying to track down the source when contacted by VTDigger.

“We are really in a fortunate place to have many points of distribution for our coffee,” Yusen said. “And it’s not always possible to know what is happening with every customer out there. It helps us when we hear from our coffee drinking fans with feedback.”

Yusen said the company appreciates hearing concerns from customers, which help guide the firm’s policies and practices. She said her hope is that sustainability goals and shareholder demand for monetary returns “can be one and the same.”

Andrea Cohen is executive director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, of which Keurig Green Mountain is a longtime member.

Cohen said the company’s acquisition and focus on sales of K-cups, the disposable single-serve coffee pods, has raised concerns.

“We’re not the social responsibility police,” Cohen said. But the organization does like to be a resource to member companies as they make decisions about supply chains, she said.

Hilary Niles

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  • Kathy Leonard

    This is a good reminder for consumers everywhere: Keurig’s K-cups are the very worst choice a coffee drinker can make! THAT is where Keurig makes 85% of its profits. Next to their impact, this cup brouhaha is but a trifle.

    Keurig lost it’s right to claiming it is environmentally responsible when they took the fork in the road toward single-serve plastic cups. There is No getting around that.

    • What she said. Won’t ever drink from this company — ever – because of how environmentally disgusting/destructive are the K-cups. Styrofoam? not surprised based on the indifference to the tidal wave of k-cup trash.

    • Karl Riemer

      Hear, hear!
      What used to be a coffee roaster is now a lifestyle pimp, a purveyor of plastic crap and consumption nonchalance.

  • Just like Dunkin’ Donuts….I can’t believe anyone is using styrofoam…some states are outlawing plastic grocery bags, but styrofoam is EVEN WORSE.

  • Gary Trachier

    And what of intellectual property infringement? Wouldn’t the “Green Mountain Coffee” logo be property of the company, and something they would license only to cup makers of their choice? The logo on the two cups are not identical, but are substantially the same.

    • Karl Riemer

      Not to mention that the stores providing them (presumably to save money) are materially misrepresenting the product they’ve contracted to supply. What’s interesting is that imprinting styrofoam isn’t a trivial process. This probably isn’t being done in someone’s basement; it’s deliberate, resourceful piracy which pays off only in volume. That suggests these may be disseminated much more widely than Washington County and may include other brands.

  • Dave Hughes

    The cup is made by Win Cup and if they turned the cup around, it will have the name of the convenience store chain on it. Why wasnt that mentioned in your article?

    • I was thinking the same thing. When I first saw this, my “investigation” took a little under 5 seconds at the Rotary Mart.

  • Ian Lord

    The styrofoam cups are most likely provided to stores by the distributor (like W.B. Mason, or whoever ships coffee and supplies to the local convenience markets). Green Mountain would do well to start there in their investigation.

    • Karl Riemer

      Presumably that is where they’ve started, but that’s not the endpoint. Someone along the line decided that removing the ® from a logo made it public domain and freely copyable. Someone didn’t blink at linking brands on a product without notifying a brand owner. A slew of someones seems to believe that buying a physical product entitles them to appropriate the name of that product. Piracy is piracy even if it’s the product of a corporation or collusion between corporations.

  • sandra bettis

    couldn’t vt outlaw styrofoam? and also plastic bags? that would solve a lot of issues.

  • Phyllis North

    Sounds like a lawsuit brewing.

  • Curtis Sinclair

    I remember years ago styrofoam cups were banned at cafeterias that served state employees due to environmental concerns. Then I read and article in New Scientist:

    “Polystyrene cups may not be the environmental villains of popular imagination. The paper cups preferred by many environmentalists are far worse offenders, according to a Canadian study. Not only do they consume more natural resources, they also produce more pollution. Martin Hocking, a chemist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, compared the environmental credentials of the two kinds of cup (Science, vol 251, p 504).

    Hocking calculates that paper cups contain six times as much raw material by weight. On average, paper cups weigh 10.1 grams; a polystyrene cup weighs only 1.5 grams. ‘The paper cup consumes about 12 times as much steam, 36 times as much electricity and twice as much cooling water. About 580 times the volume of waste water is produced for the pulp required for the paper cup,’ says Hocking.

    The effluent from paper making contains 10 to 100 times the amount of contaminants.”

    The k-cups also contain plastic that makes them impossible to recycle. And it’s hard to know exactly what kind of plastic is actually in the k-cup. From an article in Mother Jones:
    “Green Mountain only makes 5 percent of its current cups out of recyclable plastic. The rest of them are made up of a #7 composite plastic, which is nonrecyclable in most places.

    “No. 7 plastic means ‘other,'” says Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.. “You don’t know what it is.” One concern with this plastic mix is the presence of polystyrene,

    Keurig would not tell me what types of plastic go into its #7 blend, saying the information was proprietary.”

    People concerned about the environment should not be using single serve disposable cups. See” Reusable Coffee Cups: A Simple Step for a Huge Impact”

  • M.L. Stephens

    Perhaps the styro cups with the GMC logo are being made from by-products of the ‘Coffee-Mate’ manufacturing process that would otherwise have gone to waste. As noted in a previous Digger article, GMC will be adding that coffee-lightening product to its K cups. Some of the compounds used to create the stuff sound like they might have a petro-chemical origin, and this may be just another example of better profits (oops – meant to say ‘living’) through chemistry.

    I probably should add a serious, concerned comment here, but other responders have relieved me of that task, so I get to capitalize on the comic irony of this ‘kerfuffle’ following so closely the news of the fake cream additive going into the K cups, thereby replacing a not insignificant amount of actual, real coffee. The opportunity was irresistible.

  • Ron Pulcer

    The only Styrofoam cup manufacturer I was familiar with when I first read this article was Dart Container Corp., which is based in Mason, MI (south of Lansing). I used to live in Ingham County, so I was familiar with the Dart company name. According to their website, the closest U.S. manufacturing plant is in Mason, MI and they also have a plant in Ontario, Canada.

    However, with a quick Google search I see that there are now many Chinese manufacturers of Styrofoam cups.

    As China has a reputation of trademark infringement and piracy of U.S. products and tradenames, this seems like something to look into.

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