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Will Keurig coffee pods really become recyclable? Don’t hold your breath

“When you look at the trends toward single-serve generally, you can either villainize it, or you can fix it. We’re trying to fix it.”  – Monique Oxender, chief sustainability officer for Keurig Green Mountain Coffee, quoted in the New York Times.

That’s quite the quote, coming from the company that’s done so much to villainize coffee-making convenience by saddling it with mountains of plastic waste.

The occasion was Keurig’s announcement last Friday that three of its four K-Cup pod types are now recyclable – and the rest will be, too, by the end of the decade.

Wow. Could it really be true that Keurig was reversing its corporate philosophy to embrace genuine recycling and sustainability, instead of making sly gestures in that direction?

I didn’t have to look very far to determine that the answer, alas, is no.

A fine analysis by David Gelles, who writes on energy and environment at the New York Times, acknowledged that Keurig has found a way to make its pods out of polypropylene (plastic recycling code 5) instead of a mystery material that carries recycling code 7.

 (Code 7 is a catchall for less common plastic resins, some of which contain the possibly cancer-causing styrene and, as Mother Jones reports, suspected endocrine disruptors; Keurig has declined to say which ones it has used.)

However, Gelles observes, the new polypropylene cups are neither reusable nor compostable, nor are they user-friendly toward those K-Cup consumers who might be motivated initially to recycle the empty pods:

Consumers will have to remember to put it in the recycling bin, if they have one. They also should peel off the aluminum top — a messy process that gets coffee grounds under fingernails. And then they will have to hope that recycling centers — overwhelmed with mountains of plastic, metal, paper and trash — can capture thousands of tiny, individual K-Cups and sell them for a profit.

In a wonderfully revealing history published in The Atlantic a year ago, Keurig’s Oxender insisted that all of the 9.8 billion pods the company sold in 2014 – a stream that could circle the earth perhaps a dozen times – were “fully recyclable.”

Some disassembly required

And indeed, as writer James Hamblin pointed out, “every new K-Cup spin-off product that the company has introduced since 2006 (including the Vue, Bolt, and K-Carafe cups) is recyclable, if a person is willing to disassemble them into paper, plastic, and metal components.”

Which is the level of commitment we’d naturally assume from consumers who are in too much of a hurry to use a truly sustainable single-serve option – say, a one-cup French press – which can hold its grounds against the Keurig on quality, efficiency and, especially, price.

The polypropylene itself will be more welcome at some recycling operations, but another problem remains — the empties’ small size reportedly foils the automatic sorting and screening gear at many a modern single-stream processing plant.

However, the option remains to gather the spent pods and ship them to TerraCycle, along with a processing fee to cover their shredding or their transport to one of the few Canadian outfits that can handle Keurig’s plastic. Also, they can be returned to Keurig for incineration.

Now that’s self-serve convenience and sustainability for you.

No wonder the city of Hamburg, Germany, has banned the machines from government buildings.

Meant for office venues

I admit that the first time I saw a coffee-pod machine I was highly impressed — and grateful. But the venue was the waiting room of an outpatient surgical practice, where the speed, quality and comfort of the beverage counted for a lot. So did the variety of drinks on offer and the overall tidiness of the hospitality counter.

The second time, about five years ago, Sallie and I were visiting her mother and noticed that another daughter had replaced mom’s ancient percolator with a Keurig — a big improvement in the brew, but as the trash pail began to fill with sturdy plastic pods I was thinking, “uh-oh.”

Still, I didn’t really believe that this silly approach to making coffee would take off in a big way, and neither did John Sylvan, the guy who invented the system back in the early 1990s, and now regrets it.

At the time, he was aiming to improve workplace coffee and coffeemaking; it didn’t occur to him that people would want the dispensers in their homes, because he certainly wouldn’t.

“I don’t have one,” Sylvan told Hamblin. “They’re kind of expensive to use. Plus it’s not like drip coffee is tough to make.”

More than most people, Sylvan understands the challenge of making a pod that keeps ground coffee from going stale, resists crushing in transit, and holds up to an injection of very hot water.

“The plastic is a specialized plastic made of four different layers,” he says. “No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable.”

Keurig is a little cagey about sales numbers, but available data suggest that the number of pods sold annually more than tripled between 2010 and 2014, and it has been estimated than one American household in three has a coffee-pod contraption on the counter.

And though my focus here is on the waste factor, not cost, I must note that the K-Cups are priced at levels that translate to a coffee price I’ve seen pegged as high as $60 a pound.

Antitrust troubles

After a while, one of Sallie’s thriftier siblings added a few roll-your-own pods to the former utensil drawer now filled with Keurig stuff – mesh-and-plastic containers that you could fill, insert, remove, empty, rinse and re-use indefinitely.

What a brilliant solution for everybody except Keurig, whose fortunes depend on strictly limiting alternatives to its proprietary product set. Thus the release in 2012 of  the company’s “2.0” machines, specifically designed not to accept competitors’ single-use pods – or, darn, the roll-your-owns, either.

The consumer backlash inspired by that move forced the company to reconsider and promise a reusable filter that would work with the 2.0 machines.

But that wasn’t enough to forestall a wave of lawsuits against Keurig for anticompetitive practices, some by other companies in the coffee-pod business and some which have been certified as class actions in behalf of consumers who object to Keurig controlling too tightly how they use their machines.

In at least some cases, the competitors’ products are considerably more recyclable than the K-Cups; some supposedly are even biodegradable.

What would be laughable, were it not so perverse, is Keurig’s ceaseless pitch that pod coffee is not only of higher quality, but by eliminating coffee discards is reducing waste of water, coffee and energy.

Of course there is no accounting for taste, but to my palate the K-Cup coffee has never been better than ordinary. French roast in a roll-your-own filter is OK, but here’s the thing: If you’re accustomed to drinking coffee by the mug, you’ll need to make two pods’ worth to fill up.

Coffee of the future

We are coffee modernists of a different kind in Skunk Hollow and also, for that matter, when we travel. We use a futuristic device you can see demonstrated in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.,” that dystopian epic of a world where nearly every familiar feature of terrestrial life has been replaced with something technologically advanced and artificial.

People in the late 21st century heat their coffee-making water in a lovely glass column whose power source is undetectable; it can be handled with bare hands as the water is poured over ground coffee in a smaller glass cylinder topped with a sort of plunger apparatus. After a few moments, the plunger is pressed downward and hot, perfectly filtered coffee can be poured into your cup.

We make do with an efficient electric kettle to heat water, but our several brewing vessels are of the same basic design as the one on Spielberg’s set.

There’s an insulated restaurant model in stainless steel that makes four cups (two mugs) and keeps the coffee hot for an hour; a traditional glass version of the same size that can cool too quickly unless I remember to drape it with a dishtowel; two unbreakable numbers that go camping and sailing with us, one in polycarbonate and the other in stainless steel (the latter can sit right on the camp stove); and, finally, a single-serve cutie that Sallie keeps at her office.

We heat just enough water to fill the vessels and the spent grounds can go straight into the compost. Cleanup is a quick rinse and wipe after each use, followed fortnightly by a soap-and-water bath.

Seems to me that this is in fact the perfect process for making exactly the kind and amount of coffee you want, when you want it, inexpensively and in a matter of minutes, without waste … and yet I’ve heard the technology is actually quite old.

I think it may have been invented by the French.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/19/2016 - 11:50 am.

    Thanks, Ron, for making such great fun of one of America’s silliest consumer products, and one of the least eco-friendly. I figured out the Keurig system cost aspect when it came out, and consider it the most expensive coffee system going.

    On pollution grounds alone (pun intended), Keurig systems should be outlawed.

  2. Submitted by Marta Fahrenz on 04/19/2016 - 12:39 pm.

    Yes, unconscionable

    It makes me just sick to see those piles of plastic cups in trash, and appalling that Keurig continually stonewalls on doing the right thing NOW to make their product recyclable. It should never have gone on the market before that happened. Interesting how other coffee companies have been able to come up with a mesh and paper alternative, and interesting also that this isn’t more of a concern to people, especially as we begin the serious conversation around banning plastic bags.Don’t mess with my morning coffee is the message I’m hearing.

  3. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 04/20/2016 - 09:29 am.

    Clearly, Keurig is not an ethical company

    And recyclable cups still don’t cut it. It still takes fossil fuels & energy to make the cups, and to recycle them.

    But at some point people need to take responsibility for their own ethical decisions. No one is forcing folks to buy these things. It’s amazing how people can go thru life wanting only more stuff and bigger stuff and more convenience, and not giving the slightest thought to their footprint on the earth. The ice caps are just about gone, but damn that’s some convenient coffee system.

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