The Extraordinary ReMaking of Ordinary Things, Pt 3: J&J Green Paper reinvents the paper coffee cup with an alternative to plastic

April 12, 2021 |

Today, in part 3 of our series The Extraordinary remaking of Ordinary Things, let’s begin with the not well-known problem of the paper coffee cup, that it leaks and loses rigidity when hot, unless you put a coating on it, one made of polyethylene, and that coating makes it very, very difficult to break down in a landfill or handle in a waste recovery and recycling facility.

Now, J&J Green Paper has developed a compound made primary of sugarcane and rice bran wax that can replace polyethylene as a coating for coffee cups, Keurig K-Pods, and other plastic-based waste.

The Problem in Our Cup runneth over

More or less, the cup you may be enjoying for a morning Starbucks as you read this, will outlive you. Might outlive your children, and may not be fully absorbed into the soil for a thousand years, a date even the cast of Star Trek would not live to see.

Now, if coffee drinking were a habit of the few instead of the many, were Starbucks and its ilk a habit of the handful instead of the masses, this would be an academically interesting topic, but not an important one. It becomes interesting to consider that a string of low-compostable coffee cups that stretches past the moon and back, every time the world’s adult population has a cup of joe, to go.

Coffee, we love you to the moon and back.

The problem, of course, is neither the coffee nor the cup. It’s the coating. And it gets worse with the K-Cup, the plastic coffee pod that comes as a component part of the Keurig single-use coffee system. Not every single use system has a disposable plastic cup at the heart of it, but a lot of the really popular ones do.

How big is the problem? J&J advises that “according to data published by EarthDay.org, a full 32 percent of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced annually is left to flow into our oceans, which is the equivalent of pouring one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute. This number is expected to increase to two garbage trucks per minute by 2030, and four per minute by 2050. By 2050, this could mean there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans. It’s staggering to consider the fact that more than half of our global annual plastic production (around 335 million metric tons) is destined to become a single-use product, according to the organization Plastic Oceans International.

A new report

Not long ago, J&J released its The War on Plastics’ report. According to the report, if the production and use of plastics continue to increase as projected, the plastic industry will account for 20 percent of global oil use by 2050. With plastic becoming more and more expensive to recycle, the company sees now as an imperative time to urge industry leaders to make a change before plastics do further harm to both the environment and human health.

Based in Miami, but not the Ohio one

Now, Miami may not be the first city you think of when you consider a place where innovative renewables or cleantech innovation takes place. Yes, the Daily Digest calls Miami home, but almost no one else in the industry does. You could hold an industry meeting in this town possibly inside a well-stuffed phone booth. We’re better known for our bars, cruise ships, beaches, finance, Latin ties and spring-breaker mayhem than anything else. Miami’s motto in renewables has been “no tenemos la menor idea” — we haven’t got a clue. But we are home to Burger King, so we had the Impossible Whopper before anyone else. I think.

Yet, here is where J&J calls home, amidst the Cuban-tinged accents and a boomtown feeling born of an exodus of New York financiers to South Florida and another bubble in the housing market — here, new ideas rule because there is no history, and innovators rule because there is no state income tax.

What is J&J’s solution?

Derived from widely available plant material, JANUS coated paper can be custom-shaped and when coated, creates moisture resistance equivalent to petroleum-coated products. Unlike the old school petroleum-coated paper, J&J’s green paper technology is recyclable, compostable and made with zero petroleum additives, making it safe for backyard composting with no chemical footprint.

The company, which has invested eight years developing a cutting-edge solution to the critical issue of packaging waste, began its development trying to find a solution to the problem of pizza boxes and coffee cups. 

The development backstory

As CEO Scott Segal told The Digest. “My father was president of Revlon, and I was able to get ingredients that are now in organic lipsticks [because of that market knowledge]. In buying components, lo and behold, I found a couple, when they blend and mixed, it worked on paper to create a water/oxygen protection and grease barrier. So, we set up a small manufacturing facility in China for testing, met a patent attorney who was also a chemical engineer who was able to help with development, and we started through the patent process.”

Who’s looking for the answers?

Major food products companies like Kraft, Kellogg’s, McDonalds and Burger King are leading the charge and beginning to understand the value of adopting pro-environmental solutions, despite their longstanding history of using plastics in their consumer goods. Many of these market leaders have pledged to immediately reduce their use of single use plastics to help impede the tide of trash, but to date, the available alternatives to plastic are limited, expensive or hard to produce.

During the past year, the company and its potential partners experimented with products designed to replace all things plastic, from water bottles to milk cartons, grocery bags to salad containers, from paperware and paper straws to the now-ubiquitous K-cup, packaging used for individual sized portions of coffee for brewing machines made famous by companies like Keurig and Nespresso.

Segal told us, “The market is enormous. Every soap box is coated with polyethylene. There are 50 million tons used per year. We have end users, big cereal manufactures, they want to replace the bag. They’d like to coat the box and eliminate the bag. You can replace plastic yogurt cups. We’ve been inundated with companies doing testing and in talks. 

What about cost?

“That’s another huge factor – our compound including cost of royalty is under $500/ton – they are paying as much as $1200 per ton for PE now. The cost of building a facility to make 6K tons per year is $500,000 with the equipment and installation.

What about the feedstocks?

“We take remnants,” Segal told The Daily Digest. “The main ones are bagasse and rice hulls. We use heat and pressure, and we extract an oil. We mix that pasty substance, convert it into bricks, then we pelletize – no chemicals, and it can be FDA certified for food consumption.”

What about deployment?

J&J finalized a multi-country deal mid-summer with CST of Malaysia for paper products and packaging in mid-sized Asia markets and Oceania. J&J management, deep in talks with industry leading paper companies, is rushing to close deals by year-end to meet the desire of major consumer and food companies anxious to launch sustainable green packaging by mid-year 2021.

And as Segal told the Digest, “our first agreement is with a licensing group out of Indonesia. They will manufacture the JANUS compound. They will use in own products and sell the excess into an 11 country area. We got an upfront fee and a per ton royalty.”

The Bottom Line

50 million tons of polyethylene, up for grabs? It’s early days, but the described prices and the claims on the efficacy of the formulation are, of course, compelling. It does not appear to be long before we’ll have added customer validation, and let’s be optimistic, as we are in Miami, where after all, they said the Impossible Whopper wouldn’t make it. So, another feather in Miami’s cap, perhaps on the way.

For more information, visit jjgreenpaper.com. The report can be viewed at jjgreenpaper.com/the-report/

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