Dear EarthTalk: What is the environmental impact of those "K-Cups" everyone seems to be using nowadays to make coffee at both home and office?
- Chris B., Stamford, CT
K-Cups—those little one-serving coffee containers that allow people to brew one cup at a time in a specially designed Keurig brewing machine—are all the rage these days. Each K-Cup is made up of a plastic outer container with one cup’s worth of ground coffee and a small filter inside, capped off with a foil lid. They go into Keurig brewing machines which pierce the bottom of the K-Cup with a nozzle that then forces hot water through the coffee grounds and filter, and then out into the drinker’s cup. K-Cups and the Keurig brewers are convenient and require little to no clean-up while producing gourmet quality coffee for a fraction of the price that a retail coffee shop would charge.
Environmentalists’ beef with the Keurig system is in the single-use, non-recyclable nature of the packaging, given the implications for our waste stream. The individual parts of a K-Cup (plastic, paper and foil) could theoretically be recycled on their own, but the combination is too small and messy for recycling facilities to be able to sort. So our only choice is to throw the whole K-Cup pack, lock stock and barrel, into the garbage. Each pound of coffee consumed sends 50 K-Cups to the landfill. And with upwards of 17 million U.S. households and offices possessing Keurig brewers these days, billions of K-Cups are already ending up in landfills every year.
Keurig Green Mountain, the company behind the K-Cup revolution, is on the case about the bad environmental reputation it is developing over the issue. As a first step, it launched its Grounds to Grow On program in 2011 whereby office customers can purchase K-Cup recovery bins and fill them up with spent K-Cups. When the boxes are full, they are shipped to Keurig’s disposal partner, which turns the used coffee grounds into compost and sends the rest out to be incinerated in a "waste-to-energy" power plant. Critics point out, though, that waste-to-energy is hardly green given the airborne pollutants released from incinerator smokestacks and the fact that, in the words of Julie Craves of the Coffee & Conservation blog, recycling is the enemy of the never-ending stream of garbage needed to feed waste-to-energy facilities.
In 2012, Keurig Green Mountain, realizing it still had a lot of work to do on sustainability matters, undertook a lifecycle assessment across its product lines—and set ambitious sustainability targets to achieve by 2020. Chief among them is to make all K-Cups 100 percent recyclable. Other goals include ensuring responsible sourcing for all its primary agricultural and manufactured products, reducing life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of its brewed beverages by 25 percent compared to the 2012 baseline, and achieving zero waste-to-landfills its manufacturing and distribution facilities.
Those who love the Keurig system but are ready to forego the environmental guilt sooner than 2020 do have some options. Julie Craves reports that used K-Cups can actually be refilled with ground coffee and reused. An easier option might be buying a reusable K-Cup—most of them are made out of plastic with a stainless steel mesh filter. Still the best choice for the environment, however, might be getting the old traditional coffee pot out of storage and brewing up several cups at once—just like the old days.