An Investigation Into the Environmental Implications of Keurig K-Cups

by: Thomas Alexander

The Keurig K-Cup is everywhere. It’s in our homes, our offices, our garbage bins, and our landfills. Lately, it’s in our news. A slew of writers, reporters, and TV personalities have condemned the popular single-serve coffee system for its tendency to generate tons upon untold tons of non-recyclable waste.

Pod coffee is addictively convenient and conveniently addictive. Caffeine fiends can brew exactly one cup in a matter of moments without measuring grounds or getting their hands dirty. It seems to be a lovely system until we peer into the belly of the beast.

K Cup or Not to K Cup?

K Cup or Not to K Cup?

The K-Cup comprises three parts: the plastic container, an aluminum foil top, and a paper filter that lines the interior of the cup. Each plastic pod contains a single cup’s worth of coffee grounds. The grounds are biodegradable, as is the filter, but the containers themselves are neither recyclable nor biodegradable. The pods are built in layers of mixed #7 plastic, which helps them hold up against boiling water but makes them incredibly difficult to recycle. Instead, K-Cups pile up in landfills, out of sight and out of mind, where they will continue to pile up like sand in an hourglass until there is no land left to fill.

In order to dispose of each component in the proper fashion, a conscientious coffee-lover would need to pick apart each K-Cup by hand once its contents have been brewed. Then peel off the aluminum lid, extricate the filter, compost the grounds and recycle the plastic pod. Even then, one would be hard-pressed to find a recycling center that would agree to handle the #7 plastic. It’s hard to imagine that most people would take the time.

To the credit of the manufacturers, the 2014 Keurig Fiscal Sustainability Report promises that the company will embark upon dramatic reforms over the next 5 years. Keurig Green Mountain has publicly committed to making 100% of its K-Cups recyclable by 2020. The firm claims that it is planning to replace its non-recyclable pods with polypropylene #5 plastic, which can be handled by most—though not all—recycling centers. Keurig’s new groove should relieve the waste issue, although one must still question the sustainability of producing billions of small plastic cups each year.

As for the coffee: the Keurig Green Mountain website claims that the company prizes organic, fair-trade coffee beans, although only 64% of its 2014 coffee supply was “traceable by source.” Starbucks, in contrast reports that 95% of its coffee was ethically sourced in 2013. Keurig donated nearly 9 million dollars to “supply chain communities” last year, although it is not clear where the money specifically went.

The Atlantic reports that nearly one in three American homes now uses a pod-based coffee machine. Keurig sold more than 9 billion single-use plastic coffee pods in 2014, and the market has been steadily growing. Murray Carpenter wrote in his book Caffeinated that the K-Cups used and discarded in 2011 would loop around the Earth more than six times, like some absurd symbolic noose. The pods that we threw out in 2013 would strangle the globe more than ten times. These figures are powerful in isolation, but they are more terrifying when we consider that they compound from year to year.

Of course, single-use plastic coffee pods do not swarm the planet by their own volition. With each cup of coffee that we buy or brew, we make a conscious choice to contribute to the problem—or to resist it.

There is perhaps no coffee-making system as immediate as the K-Cup, but in this instant-gratification society we must learn to temper convenience with conscience. We must take up our battered French presses and Mr. Coffee machines and imagine a world that is not pimpled with landfills. As Keurig slowly reconsiders its plastic production, the climate is ripe for others to dream up an efficient but much-less-wasteful system. We may need our coffee, but we need not be pod people.