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Brewing a Better World?

February 13, 2012

I’m a hard-to-wake college student, often waking up only 10 or 15 minutes before class begins. For me, the Keurig single-serve coffee machine appears to be an extremely practical and convenient solution, both from a cost and an efficiency perspective.  For those who haven’t been exposed to Keurig’s method of “brewing excellence, one cup at a time,” let me explain.

The Keurig Single-Serve coffee machine first came on the market in 1998, and the way it works is this: you put a small, pre-filled plastic cup (filled with coffee grounds of your choice), into the Keurig machine, and once filled with water, you press brew, and the machine produces a steaming hot cup of fresh coffee into your (hopefully) reusable mug or thermos. According to Michael Dupee, Vice President for social responsibility at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the maker of Keurig, this single-serve machine not only provides a quick, convenient way to get out of the house in the morning, but also saves the last third of the usual coffee pot, which too often goes down the drain. Although Keurig loyalists are correct to tout the coffee-saving qualities of single-serve machines, the real waste problem is the plastic cups themselves. As use of single-serve coffee machines continues to grow, so too does the amount of plastic waste.

Green Mountain Coffee

In 2009, 1.6 billion K-cups (the cute name given to Keurig’s plastic cup) were sold, creating enough plastic to circle the earth 1.25 times.  But K-cup usage does not stop there.  It is expected that 3 billion K-cups were sold in 2010, and that 13% of all US offices have a K-cup brewer.  With over 200 flavors of gourmet coffee, teas, hot cocoa, iced coffees, apple ciders and chai lattes, it’s easy to see why Keurig machines are so popular.  However, these K-cups are almost impossible to recycle, due to three components: the plastic cup, a heat-sealed paper filter, and a polyethylene-coated aluminum foil top.  Although this packaging is necessary to keep the contents of a K-cup fresh, the cups themselves are not biodegradable.

In terms of price for single-serve varieties, a New York Times article states that “the cost varies, but is often about 60 cents a cup, or $25 a pound of coffee.”  The average cost for a mainstream bag of ground coffee is about $5 per pound — making K-cups five times as pricey.

What’s particularly interesting about this dilemma is that Keurig itself is owned by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, a brand whose slogan is in fact “brewing a better world.” A life-cycle analysis of the environmental impact of K-cups showed that most of the negative environmental impact occurs when the packaging is produced, and not when it’s disposed. Regardless, the Keurig appliance itself is not energy star rated, and the findings of this report do not change the fact that a pound of ground coffee will produce 25 cups of coffee with considerably less plastic, paper, and polyethylene waste than 25 K-cups.  The company encourages consumers to compost the remains of the cup, but this hardly helps, especially considering that the most important “R” of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is to reduce generated waste.

Keurig Flavors

Some of the competitors of Keurig provide slightly more environmentally friendly options, though these are also limited. A British company called TerraCycle does reuse the plastic cups from Kraft’s Tassimo pods, but these recycling options are not available in the USA. A slight improvement, Sara Lee’s Senseo pods are made of paper rather than plastic and are therefore compostable. But many consumers are still inclined to throw them away, and Sara Lee’s coffee itself received a “worst” environmental and ethical rating by Green America’s Responsible Shopper.

The Keurig Company does sell a reusable filler cartridge called My K-Cup. However, this cartridge is only compatible with eight of fifteen Keurig machines. On top of that, reviews of My K-cup are rather lacking, with only 50% of users indicating that they would recommend the product to a friend.  Furthermore, the existence of My K-cup as a solution to single-serve coffee brewing has not impacted the market in a significant way, and therefore, provides no solution at all. Although Keurig has experimented with paper cups, they were abandoned due to poor functionality.

So what is the solution to this problem? Should a consumer dedicated to reducing his or her waste get rid of a single-serve machine?  This seems rather contradictory, as throwing away machine because of waste issues would add to the waste problem. There are several ways to work around this difficulty, without getting rid of a single-serve machine. (We should keep in mind that the most environmentally responsible solution is not investing in a single-serve coffee maker to begin with.) However, if you do insist on using K-Cups, or any single-serve, plastic-wasting machine for that matter, here are some tips:

1) Don’t buy K-cups from Folgers and Dunkin Donuts.  These companies have (at best) sketchy environmental and ethical reputations, often exploiting farmers and engaging in environmentally unsound practices.  The most sustainable choice when choosing any coffee is to go Fair-Trade, Organic, Shade-grown or Bird-friendly.

2) Try the reusable K-Cup lid, called My Kap ($3), which allows the cup itself to be used multiple times. Although this drastically cuts down one’s waste per cup, it still doesn’t compare to conventional coffee making

3) Use each K-cup up to ten times! Check out this video on Youtube.  Although this is a better solution than My Kap, it still produces more waste than using a regular coffee machine.

4) Petition your workplace to collect and send discarded K-cups to Keurig’s compost program. They’ll send the cups to a company that composts the grounds and disposes of the cups in a “responsible” manner. While this solves the problem from your end, shipping this non-recyclable waste back and forth may be wasteful in its own right, and does not solve the problem of reduction in waste.

keurig Ultimately, the most environmentally friendly decision is to not use single-cup brewing systems at all.  Yet this choice can also cause problems, since alternatively buying your favorite Dunkin Donuts brew in the unavoidable Styrofoam cup isn’t great for the environment.

Darby Hoover, the senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council suggests the Keurig is just not needed. Her suggestion? Talk to your coworkers before brewing a coffeepot.  “I have to say that many offices have worked this out for years.”

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