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Extending Polypropylene (PP) Product Lifecycles via Collection and Reuse Systems

Small PP items such as K-cups and pill bottles can be collected at their source, cleaned, and re-circulated for the same high-volume product

Photo of Ricardo Raphael Corona-Moreno
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We envision large chain stores that use Polypropylene (PP) small format goods as the recycling nexus for the average consumer. There are two common products that are PP-based and struggle to be recycled properly - Keurig K Cup and prescription bottles. Here we outline what potential supply chains would look like when the manufacturers are able to extend the the lifetime of PP goods and a precedent set by Ziploc bags at partnering with grocery stores to recycle its bags. 

Keurig K-Cups: Integrating K-Cup Recycling into Large Coffee Chains

K-cups are the small vessel in which individual serving sizes of coffee are stored for Keurig instant coffee systems. In 2015, it was estimated that 9 billion K-cups ended up in landfills. In 2016, Keurig stated that they would transition to using PP.

There is precedent for creating recycling systems that take into account packaging, stacking, and a clear definition of products to be collected. Last year, Starbucks in London launched a set of specialized recycling centers tailored specifically at controlling the configuration items are placed in and the type of items that can be placed (Pictured above). Similar initiatives can take place for Keurig K-cups, many of which are associated with the Starbucks label already. 

  • Financial Incentive: Starbucks or any other coffeeshop with a customer rewards program can provide incentives for customers who bring K-cups to be recycled to the coffee shop. This incentivizes not only the customer to recycle PP K-cups but also to return to the local coffee shop and purchase goods there too, K-cups included. 
  • Supply Chain Viability: Starbucks has had a pre-existing relationship with Keurig and although it has been strained in year past, Starbucks could partner with any other Contract Manufacturer capable of product K-cups to implement the use of PP K-cups. 

Medicinal Prescription Bottles: Discretely Disposing of Empty Prescription Bottles 

In the United States, both the cap and vial that are used to distribute prescription medicine are composed of PP. Many prescriptions are on-going, requiring the consumer to go back to the pharmacy to purchase more medicine. It is in this second touch-point that the consumer could return their empty bottles and perhaps receive a discount or waiver of recycling fees. 

  • Privacy Incentive: Pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS would be able to provide patients with peace of mind by having an in-house system that automatically removes the labels from the bottles. Generally, this is a process that is worrying to prescription bottle users who do not want their name attached to a bottle if somehow it end up misplaced while on route to a landfill. 
  • Supply Chain Viability: Pharmacies already have well established protocols for medical waste and sterile work environments. Introducing used and somewhat dirty bottles introduces a challenge of working with industry group to educate the consumer on properly cleaning bottles if soiled. 

Precedent: Ziploc and Other Flexible Bags Recycling in Large Grocery Stores

Ziploc is a member of the sustainable packaging coalition which has pioneered the supply chain model we have alluded to here. With large grocery stores, the sustainable packaging coalition has created both a user friendly label to indicate the steps needed for a flexible item to be recyclable and instructs users to check online where the closest store with a recycling station is located. Some brands have taken steps similar to Ziploc in prominently featuring both the recycling logo and steps to find the right locations to recycle. 

A New Step in the Post-Reclamation Supply Chain: Extending the Lifetime of PP Goods

Additionally, we propose that either Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) or consumer goods packaging manufacturers create a separate stream for Sterilized PP goods. All of the suggestions listed before this were focused on ensuring that more PP items are recycled but we also believe that the lifetime of already-manufactured PP items can be extended through industrial scale sterilization and quality control. There is a class of recyclable plastics that can withstand high temperatures, which includes: Polymethyl Methacrylate (PMMA), Polymethylpentene (PMP), and Polypropylene (PP) (among others). Out of this group, PP is the only plastic that has been adopted at a massive scale and is commonly used in consumer products.

Although dishwashers are a mainstay of the american household to clean dishes, far fewer people are familiar with the industrial scale equivalent: Ultrasonicating Cleaners and Autoclavers. These cleaners are used in research labs and other facilities that require an extreme level of disinfection and operate at scale. In theory, the energy needed to clean PP K-cups and prescription bottles using autoclaving will be less than that of having to remelt the plastic and reform and significantly less than extracting petroleum from the ground.

For this idea, we are primarily concerned with the following 3 problems and believe the accelerator program will help us address them head-on: 

  1. Instituting pilot programs with relevant retail partners as part of collecting the small-format items
  2. Funds/resources to test sonication at reasonable scale and determine ease of transition
  3. Resources/suggestions for awareness campaigns and developing marketing strategy with retail partners to promote customer changes in behavior

Idea Title

Collecting Small-Format Polypropylene Items at Common Sources and Cleaning/Recycling/Recirculating


You can review our original longer format ideal proposal on

Where are you / your team located?

We are located in the San Francisco Bay Area (Oakland), California.

How does this Idea redesign unrecyclable small format plastic items that often end up as waste?

Introducing a highly tailored recycling experience for the users of certain high-volume goods will significantly increase recycling rates by incentivizing users with financial rewards (K-cups) or privacy (prescription bottles) at select coffee shops and pharmacies. Additionally, it promotes the re-use of PP items by providing the MRF with high-volume of a small good and ensuring cleanliness via autoclaving to re-sell an already formed product.

Which use cases does your Idea apply to?

Small Format | Small-format plastic packaging| Lids (coffee related goods)

In what geographical context or area does your Idea plan to operate / solve?

This concept is independent of region, as all PP goods can be recycled if customers are educated on how to go about recycling goods. It would be most impactful in regions where K-cups are commonly used or prescriptions provided via PP bottles.

How do you envision scaling up your Idea?

Our largest concern is engaging larger partners that would enable a critical mass of PP K-cups or empty prescription bottles to be collected and recycled. This would incentivize regional PP recyclers to create a separate recycling stream of high quality PP products that instead of being remelted will instead be sterilized and re-sold. Companies like Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Walgreens, and CVS would all have a large store footprint and influence package manufacturers.

At what stage of development is your Idea?

  • Research & Early Testing: You are exploring an idea, gathering inspiration and information needed to test it with real users.

Please describe how becoming a Top Idea and working with the Think Beyond Plastics Accelerator Program will help to accelerate your solution.

Our goal is to refine this or our other polymer reformulation and user design-centered idea ( with feedback from the mentors to launch a small scale pilot with early adopters. For this idea, we are primarily concerned with funds required in instituting pilot programs with retail partners and testing sonication at a reasonable scale to determine easy of transition. We believe the accelerator program will help us address these concerns head-on and raise awareness.

Please describe from where your Idea emerged

Janina and I have both taken Stanford d.School classes where we implemented the basics of design thinking to reimagine business systems. We were struck by the initial example of the K-Cup as a major source of waste, and also intrigued by the possibility of incorporating common lab equipment as an alternative powerful tool to clean products. We were also inspired by Ziploc’s efforts to increase recycling by partnering with large retail chains.

Tell us about your work experience

Janina and I both graduated from Stanford’s Materials Science and Engineering program and worked together at MadeSolid, developing 3d printing materials.

Please describe your legal and organizational structure

We are not yet legally structured but have approached the National Science Foundation (NSF) about how to further our customer discovery process.

1 comment

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Photo of Andrew

I think this is an excellent idea Ricardo, it didn't make much of an impression on me when I first read it, but reading it again it all makes sense. Perhaps it was whirring around in my subconscious last night. It is also clear that because all the shapes have the same geometry a large amount of automation could be used during the cleaning process. However, the devil is in the detail and getting the costs right down, unfortunately, these things are so cheap in new form.