May 19, 2015
With all the news these days about the purported health benefits of coffee, I figure it’s time once again to visit the K-Cup. NERC Blog readers may recall two previous articles devoted to the K-Cup discussion—Coffee Controversies and Coffee Controversies meets Recycling Capacity.
Keurig Green Mountain, the producer of the much vilified K-cup, notes that as of September 2014, 30 billion plus K-cups have been sold worldwide. According to the Atlantic, nearly one in three American homes now has a pod-based coffee machine.
In its fiscal 2014 Sustainability Report, Keurig Green Mountain stated that it has a goal to make 100% of K-Cup pods recyclable by 2020. According to the company, three out of the four pod types available for the Keurig 2.0 system—Vue®, K-Carafe™, and Bolt® packs, are currently recyclable. These pods are made of polypropylene (#5) plastic, which, according to the company is accepted by 60% of communities in the U.S. However, while these pod types have been better designed with recycling in mind, they still require that the pod’s plastic cup be separated from the lid, filter, and coffee grounds for recycling.
K-Cup Packs, the signature single-serve coffee pods manufactured by Keurig, are not currently recyclable. In 2014, K-Cups accounted for most of the company’s $4.7 billion in revenue. Finding a recycling solution for the K-Cup presents multiple challenges for the company. A recyclable K-Cup must meet all the requirements of the Keurig brewing system, while also being designed to be easily separated by consumers. The company states it is moving toward using polypropylene (#5) plastic for the pod itself (currently made from plastic #7). The current design of the K-Cup, however—plastic integrated with a filter, grounds, and plastic foil top—makes it difficult for the consumer to separate the components for recycling.
In a country where 2/3 of all beverage containers do not get recycled, I find it hard to believe the K-Cup will achieve a significant recycling rate no matter how easy it is to recycle. Also, these smaller pods can be difficult for materials recovery facilities to process and bale.
Resource Recycling recently reported on a fully compostable single-serve coffee pod developed by Club Coffee. The compostable “PurPod100” works in machines made by Keurig Green Mountain. The ring of the pod is made from coffee chaff, the skin of the bean that comes off during the roasting process. It is reportedly designed to be digestible by bacteria. The PurPod100 is currently being tested for certification by the Biodegradable Products Institute. The company states that the pod is compostable even in backyard composting…certainly intriguing if true.
In an interesting “pod” twist, John Sylvan, the inventor of the K-Cup, recently expressed his regrets over having made the single-serve pod. (Of course he also expressed his misgivings about selling his stock in Keurig for a mere $50,000.) I imagine if he didn’t invent the single-serve pod certainly someone would have. According to the Atlantic, K-Cups are exceptionally profitable, selling standard coffee grounds for around $40 per pound.
While concern over the environmental impact of disposing of billions of plastic pods is certainly being expressed, the popularity of single-serve coffee machines continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Sales of drip coffee-makers remain stagnant, while pod-machine sales have increased six-fold since 2008. And, my coffee-maker of choice—the humble French press—enjoys a relatively small, but dedicated following of coffee connoisseurs in this country.
Like many products with questionable environmental impacts, single-serve coffee systems do have their advantages. For offices and other commercial establishments, the water savings from being able to brew a single cup of coffee at a time reduces the amount of brewed coffee dumped when no one drinks it. As a frequenter of Bed and Breakfast lodging, I confess that the K-Cup has revolutionized coffee service for my travel needs. However, I believe the jury is still out on the ultimate environmental impact of the coffee pod.
By Athena Lee Bradley