Coffee Pods—There is Hope for this Environmental Catastrophe

Coffee Pods—There is Hope for this Environmental Catastrophe
John Sylvan, inventor of the K-Cup single-serve coffee pod, says he regrets inventing the product critics have labeled an environmental catastrophe.

John Sylvan, inventor of the K-Cup single-serve coffee pod, says he regrets inventing the product critics have labeled an environmental catastrophe.

UPDATE 04/19/26As part of a new environmental movement, the city leaders of Hamburg, Germany, have just banned coffee pods from state-run buildings. Reported by the BBC, the lawmakers insist the polluting products cause unnecessary resource consumption and waste generation, and often contain polluting aluminum. It’s a welcome move for the European country, where one in eight coffees (12.5 %) come from a pod. [Read more…]

John Sylvan worked at Keurig in the 1990s and, while there, invented a simple product aimed at office workers—the K-Cup®. The plastic pod contained a premeasured amount coffee allowing people to make a single cup of coffee in their office or home cheaper, faster, and with little hassle. Today Sylvan says he regrets inventing the product critics have labeled an environmental catastrophe.

Green Mountain, a company long recognized for its focus on eco-friendly approaches to coffee, acquired Keurig in 2006, but the company did not change its name to Keurig Green Mountain until March 2014. According to Keurig, since 2006, every K-Cup spin-off product has been made recyclable—if a person is willing to disassemble and divide each pod into paper, plastic, and metal components suitable for processing by recycling companies.

For those of us who are ecologically concerned, it is appalling to learn nearly one-third of homes in America have a pod-based coffee machine, which accounts for $4.7 billion in revenue to Keurig Green Mountain, and enough discarded K-Cups to circle the earth 10.5 times, according to the video titled Kill the K-Cup.

Published January 2015, by Egg Studios, the video asserts the K-Cup reached unparalleled levels in 2014 and output became so high there were enough discarded K-Cups to circle the earth 10.5 times. The video is interspersed with statistics to drive home numerous points:

1.     In 2013, Keurig Green Mountain Coffee produced enough coffee pods to wrap around the equator 10.5 times.

2.     The new Keurig 2.0 does not offer reusable filters and the existing My K-Cup filter does not fit on the machine.

3.     Keurig Green Mountain only makes 5% of its current cups out of recyclable plastic.

4.     Keurig Green Mountain’s mission is to have a Keurig System on every counter and a beverage for every occasion—hot, cold, perhaps even soup.

5.     Keurig’s pods are made of #7 plastic, which can’t be recycled in most places. They have an aluminum lid, which is hard to separate from the cup. Even if the plastic, aluminum and coffee could be separated, the pod is too small to be handled by most recycling systems.

6.     Recycling company, TerraCycle, has teamed up with Tassimo, Mars Drinks, Nespresso, and Illy, but despite reaching out to Keurig multiples times, has not be able to develop a relationship.

In wake of the video, others were spawned and the viral message of #KillTheKCup swept through the internet like a tsunami.

In a 2010 article for The New York Times, journalist and caffeine aficionado, Murray Carpenter, visited the Keurig facilities and vetted environmental concerns over the K-Cup, since the pods were not recyclable or biodegradable. Keurig sales doubled that year—already on pace to sell three million K-Cups.

Keurig’s pertinent K-Cup design patents expired in 2012, and the market was suddenly flooded with competitors. Keurig developed a second-generation (2.0) machine to meet the competition and this machine functioned only with Keurig-brand cups. For any company, this might be deemed an acceptable response; one to defend their market share, but many of the competitors’ cups were nearly completely biodegradable or reusable. Bartesian, a competitor, has recently announced cocktail pods, so the presence of cups is destined to increase, at an increasingly alarming level.

In December 2015, Keurig, which manufactures both the coffee makers and the instant flavor pods, agreed to be purchased for $13.9 billion by an investment group led by private-equity firm JAB Holding Co, but all parties remain secretive about how many K-Cups are actually being manufactured each year. The company had previously confirmed they sold 9.8 billion Keurig-brewed portion packs in 2010—which included the multiple-cup pods.

Monique Oxender, Chief Sustainability Officer joined Keurig in 2012, and pointed out the 9.8 billion K-Cups are “fully recyclable.” Oxender added, “I gotta be honest with you, we’re not happy with where we are either. We have to get a solution, and we have to get it in place quickly.”

Keurig Green Mountain pledged to create a fully recyclable version of the K-Cup, by 2020, and the company’s subsequent annual sustainability report reaffirmed that vow. Oxender kept this message top of mind during the attempted damage control in the wake of #KillTheKCup viral message. Critics are, to say the least, dissatisfied to learn there are five more years of accumulating waste in our future, and some believe it won’t be possible—ever—to make a K-Cup recyclable to a satisfactory degree. At a recycling center in Halifax, Nova Scotia—one of the few places that can recycle #7 plastic—K-Cups are accumulating in disturbing quantities.

In an interview with James Hamblin for The Atlantic, inventor Sylvan said, “No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable. The plastic is a specialized plastic made of four different layers. The cups are made from plastic #7, recyclable in only a handful of cities in Canada. That plastic keeps the coffee inside protected like a nuclear bunker, and it also holds up during the brewing process. A paper prototype failed to accomplish as much.”

At KillTheKCup.org, people can sign a petition asking Keurig to improve its product more quickly, but is the fear and outrage surrounding the pods warranted? The widely cited statistic in Kill the K-Cups about discarded pods circling the earth 10.5 times originated in a book titled Caffeinated, which was written by none other than Murray Carpenter, the journalist who initially brought awareness to K-Cups in the Times article in 2010. Carpenter acknowledges there are some benefits to the coffee machines: they save electricity since they are not used to keep a pot warm and people are extracting coffee from the grounds more efficiently.

Oxender emphasizes this point as well and adds that coffee beans are a water-intensive crop. Every bit of wasted grounds also represents wasted water. According to Keurig, up to 15% of home-brewed coffee is tossed, which actually represents 25 liters of wasted water, counting backward as far as the rain falling on the beans.

Whether or not the problem of recyclability is solved soon, there remains the issue of the already discarded pods. Rachel Rodwell has one solution.  The University Technology Sydney graduate developed a series of textiles derived from discarded Nespresso® coffee pods, which are primarily aluminum. Rodwell calls her clothing and jewelry line “Podex.” In Kerala, India, Rodwell saw locals repurposing waste materials such as coconut fiber into a number of products—ranging from rope to paddle-powered houseboats—and wanted to create an unconventional range to challenge preconceived notions of sustainable textiles, she said in an interview with Ecouterre.

Rachel Rodwell fabric from coffee pods image

Photo by Paul Pavlou

Rodwell didn’t want to use earthy neutrals often found in green fashion, and was drawn to the gleaming foil cups used in single-serving coffee machines. She smashed the pods with a meat tenderizer and reconfigured the pieces into geometric-inspired designs. The results are striking and beautiful displays of stunning colors.

Keurig, though, insists this is not the story or the end of the story. According to their website, Keurig Green Mountain is moving toward polypropylene #5 plastic for the K-Cup packs, and to meet their 2020 target, is evaluating product development solutions and working with the recycling community and partners to ensure that new K-Cup designs aren’t just recyclable, but also effectively recycled in the majority of community programs.

Despite partnerships to make K-Cups for Starbucks, McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Brands, Smucker’s, Folgers, and Kraft’s Maxwell House—and announced plans to partner with Coca-Cola (who also agreed to buy 10% of the company) to start selling a machine to make cold beverages—as of 5 February 2016, shares of the K-Cup maker had fallen nearly 5% in wake of the company reporting sales numbers which caused them to miss earnings forecasts. Keurig said sales of its coffee brewers were lower than expected during the holidays, which was particularly disappointing given the company had unveiled the Keurig 2.0 in August. What’s more, Keurig recalled more than 7 million of its MINI Plus brewers in late December due to concerns overheated water could burn customers.

Still not convinced to toss your single-serve coffee maker? Marley Coffee® is one competitor ahead of the recycle curve with their EcoCup Recyclable Capsules. As a company, they are committed to sustainable innovation for coffee drinkers and distribute an easy-to-use, recyclable single serve compatible with the Keurig 2.0.

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