Not everything is created equally — read and educate yourself on each particular circumstance. Recycling is a great solution for cardboard boxes for instance, but not so much for plastics. Recycling only works in places where the infrastructure is in place — so it’s not a one size fits all — educate yourself on the best practical way to deal with waste and do what it takes within reason. That may mean extra effort to find a way to dispose of batteries or e-waste, for example, rather than just tossing everything into the blue recycle bin and assuming it will actually be recycled.
As part of my series about companies who are helping to battle climate change, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mel Elias.
Mel Elias is Co-Founder of Bruvi, a breakthrough single-serve coffee maker with tastier coffee and Eco-friendly pods. As the demand for in-home coffee rises, Bruvi aims to upgrade the at-home experience with higher quality, sustainably sourced coffee and recyclable pods.
Mel is the former CEO of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and has over two decades of experience in the coffee industry and venture capital. Besides being a coffee executive and enthusiast, Mel is also a film composer. He was educated in Singapore and London and has been based in Los Angeles for over 20 years.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I started my career as an attorney then very quickly realized I liked consumer facing businesses, interacting with customers and building equity — I particularly enjoy working with teams and developing culture. When I found an opportunity in coffee retail, I knew it was perfect for me. Coffee is a romantic and enduring beverage. It is social, it is organic and it is highly functional — not to mention the fact that it is America’s №1 consumed beverage and a daily consumable product — so I have become a passionate and life long coffee executive.
I started as a legal advisor to the ownership group who acquired the Coffee Bean retail business when it had about 30 stores. I then joined the management team, and about 10 years later, I became CEO in 2008 for 7 years until we sold to Private Equity. I was at the helm when the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf had grown to approximately 700M dollars system wide sales and had 12,000 team members across the globe.
What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?
Today my focus is on Bruvi — a coffee company I co-founded with Sung Oh. Our mission is to elevate single-serve coffee at home. Instead of just being a convenient format, we want to make sure coffee drinkers at home no longer have to compromise taste and quality for convenience. Traditional single-serve coffee is too often lukewarm, weak and bitter. Bruvi solves all that and delivers both brewed coffee and espresso beverages that are noticeably tastier — stronger, hotter and less bitter. Moreover, we do it in a more Eco-conscious manner. Imagine a world where you can enjoy the most delicious of coffees in the convenience of a single-serve format. This proposition is especially compelling in the pandemic state.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
We think about our ability to positively impact the environment in very practical and basic terms. For instance, any solution must attempt to reduce, or at least consider the impact to carbon emissions, to food waste, and also deal with the problem of plastic waste — these are our main objectives. We take the view that plastic is an efficient medium for preserving food freshness but that we have a huge plastic waste — or end of life — problem that desperately needs to be solved without having to change human behavior.
Of course we all want to aspire to a circular economy and dream of the day that we have no need for using fossil fuels, but our approach is to make a more realistic impact here and now, while we aspire to these longer term ideals.
For instance, we have made our plastic capsules entirely from PP #5 — which is recyclable. We have made the diameter larger than 2 inches so that they are more likely to be effectively recycled. More importantly, we have painstakingly (and I believe will be the first coffee capsule company to do this) developed a capsule that can be organically and substantially digested in a landfill in only a handful of years instead of 1,000 years (we are in the midst of testing this claim via nationally recognized ASTM 5511 testing standards). This organic process of digestion that happens when a capsule ends up in a landfill means that NO microplastics are created and most of the gasses produced from this digestion of the plastic will be captured. Today in the US, ALL landfills are required to capture the gases and about 50% of the active landfills even effectively repurpose the landfill gasses into renewable energy via Landfill Gas To Energy Projects (LFGTE). Our capsules can be used to power cities and run turbines. Not only does this help solve the problem of plastic waste within the realm of today’s infrastructure, but it also potentially reduces our need for burning more fossil fuels — which is by far the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. What we are aspiring to do with our Bruvi pods is create a product that can have a more positive impact by just throwing it in the regular trash — and how simple is that?
No need for additional recycling or composting infrastructure, no need for carbon inefficient PLA or bioplastic solutions, and no need to inconvenience a user with complicated separation and recycling steps. Think for instance of the extensive system of collection, transportation and logistics required just to have a small percentage of Nespresso users recycle their capsules. I wonder whether more natural resources are devoured by washing capsules, and having them collected and sorted and transported, than the environmental value of having a small percentage of them recycled. This shows the inherent trade-offs involved, even when intentions are good.
We never want to present our Bruvi solution as the ultimate solution to the very real crisis of climate change, but as far as coffee consumption is concerned, it’s certainly a step in the right direction and makes practical sense.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
There is an abundance of data to suggest that consumers (especially younger consumers) will pay more for items that are sustainable and the easy answer is that by offering such sustainable products, we can charge more and make more money. That is not our approach at Bruvi.
Our path to creating a positive environmental impact is not easy or cheap and not something we can recoup with price increases.
We had to create a scientifically modified and organically digestible plastic, while preserving its food safe qualities and maintaining its efficiency as a vessel to preserve food freshness. We would not take on this level of production and messaging complexity or these vast additional expenses unless we believed we were doing the right thing for the world. That is the starting point. All of us at the Bruvi team feel that we are making a positive impact to the current state, and that we will add a positive dimension to the current narrative that seems to have (at least in case of plastics), a bias towards anything that has the word “compostable” or “recyclable” even though they may not be the best way in reducing greenhouse gasses or dealing with plastic waste in our current reality. This purpose, this compelling desire to do good allows us to attract passionate team members and to get a level of creative excitement in the team that ultimately leads to success and profitability of the enterprise. Customers will ultimately recognize and reward us for this, but for us there is no question that having a compelling purpose that inspires the team is of itself the most direct path to having a more profitable enterprise.
The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
Gosh — there is so much misinformation and confusion about recycling, composting and the evils of plastics that I might approach this differently. I realize the majority of people will never become activists in the way you describe, but my approach would be to challenge the vast majority of people to do small yet impactful things that will change the destiny of our planet.
- Don’t waste electricity — shut lights or heating when not used, unplug small appliances and be mindful of energy waste.
- Don’t waste natural resources — food, water, etc… don’t batch produce and waste, don’t leave water running unnecessarily, don’t overbuy food and then throw it away. Buy locally when you can.
- Litter is bad — products end up in the ocean and away from our organized waste collection systems. Throw items in the trash, if you see litter on the floor anywhere, pick it up and discard it properly.
- Not everything is created equally — read and educate yourself on each particular circumstance. Recycling is a great solution for cardboard boxes for instance, but not so much for plastics. Recycling only works in places where the infrastructure is in place — so it’s not a one size fits all — educate yourself on the best practical way to deal with waste and do what it takes within reason. That may mean extra effort to find a way to dispose of batteries or e-waste, for example, rather than just tossing everything into the blue recycle bin and assuming it will actually be recycled.
- Buy from/support companies that use recycled or upcycled materials, that use environmentally friendly ingredients, reduce the amount of packaging they use or take other steps to be more eco-smart. We have choices of how we spend our money and it’s our responsibility to be informed consumers.
Understand that hundreds of millions of people doing a positive environmental act imperfectly is better than a handful of people doing it perfectly. Small steps that can be done by everyone makes the biggest difference of all..
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Enjoy the ride — it’s more fun and rewarding than the destination.
- You get out of anything what you put into it — no pain, no gain. No effort, no reward.
- There are no life hacks — hard work and real hours will always be required for any measure of success
- Be authentic to yourself — trust your own judgement more
- Don’t embark on any business or vast project unless you believe in it enough to lose everything you have.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I can’t name one person in particular as I consider everyone I interact with to add value to my experience and wisdom — even the horrible and disruptive people had some contribution in shaping my destiny. I learned from the good and the bad and the ugly and realized above all that NOTHING can happen without a team — especially those who have a different bias or different way of approaching a problem. I am always trying to build a world class team of people smarter and quicker than I am, so I can learn from them daily.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think our education system is in vast need of an overhaul. We are not learning the right things in school to help us achieve happiness and success. We should learn more about how to manage our finances, how to build lasting friendships and relate to others, how to develop self awareness and even take leadership lessons at a young age. I think all the world’s problems can be solved with better education policy.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
“Be Present” — it’s about truly engaging at a real level with people around you, it’s about enjoying the ride and it’s about being emotionally connected. My girlfriend has that quote tattooed on her arm and it is a reminder to me to seize each day.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
Probably my instagram — @meleliascomposer
I write music as a hobby and dabble in analogue synthesizers in my spare time and there’s all that stuff, including our husky dog.
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!