Environmental trouble brewing for the K-Cup?

One-cup coffee giant Keurig's K-Cups are not recyclable. What K-Cup plans to do about it, and will it happen fast enough?

Shannon Stapleton/FILE/Reuters
FILE PHOTO- Multiple reports find that K-Cup are causing an enormous trash burden, but very few makers have developed recyclable or bio-degradable alternatives.

If they were to be taken out of landfills and lined up side by side, the K-Cups sold In 2014 alone would wrap around the world 10.5 times. 

While a huge marketing success in millions of offices and homes, Keurig has as of yet failed to develop a way to effectively recycle the plastic K-Cups, according to a report from The Atlantic.

Keurig was sold to Green Mountain Coffee of Vermont in 2006, and last year sales of the coffee pods made up most of the company's $4.7 billion revenue, which was five times the amount from just five years earlier, according to the Atlantic. Last year, the company sold more than nine billion K-Cups. Almost one in three American households has a pod-based coffee machine. 

As of last spring, only five percent of K-Cups sold by Keurig were recyclable, according to Mother Jones. The remaining 95 percent are made with composite plastics and have the recycling number "7 blend" distinction, which cannot be processed in most recycling plants.

Part of the reason for the rise in coffee pods waste is Americans' desire for a convenient fresh-brewed cup of coffee. The clean-up does not take much effort either because the coffee drinker simply tosses the spent pod in the trash. The sale of one-cup coffee pods has exploded in the last decade to the tune of 138,324 percent growth, according to data from Euromonitor, reports a Washington Post Wonkblog entry. In 2013, K-Cup sales accounted for 26 percent of all ground coffee sales in the United States, according to a story from the business-oriented online publication Quartz.

One possible solution: Since most Americans opt to buy pre-ground coffee anyways it would not take much extra effort to use refillable K-Cups. It would save consumers from continually purchasing boxes of more coffee pods, which with all of the packaging creates more waste than one bag or drum of pre-ground coffee, according to Mother Jones.

“We can get to a cup of coffee dozens of different ways,” Martin Bourque, director of the Ecology Center, a non-profit in Berkeley, Calif., told the East Bay Express. “The best way is a large volume of coffee that goes into a cup that’s washed and re-used a thousand times, and the coffee goes to compost or mushroom production. That’s best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is these pods.”

K-Cup's defenders can argue that their machines use less electricity than standard percolators, that they brew the coffee more efficiently, and that K-Cup users are less likely to make too much coffee, thus saving water. But the image of a bin full of empty K-Cups remains a potent symbol of waste . 

Keurig Green Mountain is well aware of the problem. A satirical video titled "Kill the K-Cup," uploaded to YouTube in January, already has nearly a half-million views. 

Keurig Green Mountain has released a sustainability report early last year which states that the company has a goal to make all of the individual pods 100 percent recyclable by the year 2020. The company also plans to reduce green-house gas emissions by 25 percent from the company's 2012 levels, and to fully eliminate company waste that ends up in landfills, according to the report.

Perhaps Keurig might get to its goal of creating recyclable pods sooner if it borrowed a page from its competitors.

Nespresso, Nestle's version of the Keurig machine, features completely aluminum coffee pods and aluminum lids that are fully recyclable. Canterbury Coffee is a Canadian brand that has made near-bio-degradeable coffee pods – everything can decompose with the exception of the nylon filter. However, recognizing whatever future containers hold a pod's worth of ground coffee, they will have to be as environmentally-conscious as they are functional because coffee can quickly go bad if not properly packaged, according to Mother Jones. 

Environmentally conscious customers are making choices based on caring for the planet, and companies are responding. This past week, the Christian Science Monitor reported on Kentucky Fried Chicken launching an edible coffee cup – a cup-shaped wafer cookie lined with a heat-resistant white chocolate lining. And Italian coffee maker Lavazza has launched cookie espresso cups as well.

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