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As Single-Serve Coffee Use Soars, Industry Struggles with Recycling Solutions

More than a tenth of US households — 12 percent — own single-cup coffee brewers, says the National Coffee Association, and that number is on the rise. But one-cup coffee pods are not easily recyclable, and the coffee industry is looking for more sustainable options, writes Waste & Recycling News.

Single-cup brewers are a growing trend among consumers. While just 12% of US households own single-cup brewers — up from just 3% in 2007 — 36% of those say they acquired it in the past six months.

Keurig, a wholly owned subsidiary of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, is the largest manufacturer of single-serve coffee pods and is fully aware of the issues surrounding the recycling challenges of its pods, or K-cups. However, the company says it conducted a life cycle analysis to learn more about the environmental impact of its products, and found that “the disposal of a product’s packaging represents a fraction of the total environmental impact.” Significant impacts occur in the cultivation of coffee beans, use of brewing systems, and material used in the products’ packaging, and the company is continuously working to reduce its environmental footprint, the Keurig website says.

But the manufacturing requirements of the K-Cup pack currently make recycling difficult, according to Keurig. The website explains: “The K-Cup pack is made up of three main elements: the cup itself, a filter and an aluminum foil top. The pack’s components prevent oxygen, light and moisture from degrading the coffee. Without the barrier the packaging materials provide, we could not maintain quality or freshness.”

The company says it has introduced a number of sustainability initiatives designed to reduce its environmental impact, including nested packaging for its K-Cup packs, which they estimate will reduce distribution-related greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20%, and decrease volume of packaging by 30%.

Cafection, a manufacturer of ground and whole bean single cup coffee brewer equipment, says it offers a more environmentally friendly single-serve coffee pod. Products use paper fil­ters, which are biodegrad­able, and they do not use plastic discs.

The hybrid packaging of coffee pods — which usually include both plastic and aluminum — makes it difficult for traditional recycling companies to handle, says Albe Zakes, global vice president of public relations at the recycling company TerraCycle.

TerraCycle has worked with a variety of coffee manufacturers to create take-back programs and handle the recycling of used pods, diverting millions of them from landfills.

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12 thoughts on “As Single-Serve Coffee Use Soars, Industry Struggles with Recycling Solutions

  1. I just don’t get this, or are people in denial of the environmental and financial impacts these one-cup coffee pods produce? All for the sake of convenience, and, as I have seen in people I know, social status? This is like a dollar per serving of coffee, plus extra plastic and paper waste. No, thanks.

  2. I really don’t see the problem as I use my own grounds in the reusable pod insert most of the time. It’s not social status as I only need to brew one cup at a time so even a small pot would be wasteful and this is convenient. Also, the pods I buy on occaision are closer to 50 cents each not a dollar.

  3. This is a huge problem. But, I am glad to see that companies are at least trying to do something about this. For example, new Vue cups for Keurig are recyclable, which is nice.

    Reusable pods are a nice choice too. Even though you will make a small mess when you fill them on your own, they are environmentally friendly. Plus, they are a pretty good choice if you want to save few $ on your morning coffee.

  4. Why are we always obsessing over “recycling” like it’s the be-all, end-all of environmentalism while throwing “reduce” and “reuse” under the bus? The problem with these systems is the additional materials and production required in the first place.

  5. Rogers Family Company introduced a single serve coffee with a greatly reduced environmental footprint last year. We do not have the plastic cup, but attach a filtering material to a ring at the top which is then sealed with a pliable top. A step in the right direction.
    Now, we are about to introduce the same format but with each of the components made from compost able materials. Thus the ring at the top is made from corn. The top seal is made from a special paper and the finished 1 cup goes into a freshness bag which is made from corn. The mesh filter material (less than 2%) is not compost able – but we believe it will be soon.
    Surprisingly enough, we have found that our 1 cup brewing method makes a better tasting cup of coffee as evidenced by home use tests.
    Best of all it costs us less to make the product, so we charge less – 20% to 30% less depending upon the store.

  6. It’s baffling to me, in this age of insititutionalized CSR, including the recognition of competitive advantage, why the optimization of materials and a possible return or other non-disposal option wasn’t designed into the product stewardship / supply chain lifecycle. Not that people grabbing coffee from one of the machines using these have a choice. Also, not a big one in the wider spectrum of issues with more impact.

  7. I find it incredibly hard to believe that 12% of American households have single cup brewers!!

    The actual statistic is that “Approximately 13% of the U.S. adult population drinks a coffee made in a single-cup brewer every day, according to a 2013 study from the National Coffee Association”. I would guess that most of these are cosumed at work,, car repair shops, dentists and the like. That does not lesson the need for more sustainable options, of course!

  8. I have a “proper” coffee machine – that takes freshly ground coffee and will make one cup. There is zero waste. People that purchase these “Nespresso” machines are clinically insane.

  9. With over 5billion of these cups on our landfills I argue that this is an environmental nightmare and that Green Mountain is trying to squeeze as much profit out of this product as possible before acting on manufacturing a truly environmentally sensitive unit. I also argue that they could sell even more units if they did create a fully recyclable unit and marketed as the first available. http://www.greenbeams.us/?p=1081

  10. I think the reusable k-cups are ideal – they reduce waste by not adding to our environmental issues, they reduce wasting coffee by brewing too much, and they allow me to brew awesome Specialty coffee, like Hale Kai Lana’s 100% Kona coffee at a fraction of the price as pre-filled K-cups! No harm to the environment, no waste, less cost. The coffee industry should do-away with the pre-filled versions and go with reusable solely! Oh, and your coffee is typically fresher since it doesn’t have to be shipped all over the country once roasted, for packaging and distribution of those k-cups.

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