The Keurig question: What to do with those used coffee cartridges?
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If you received a one-cup coffee maker — or a box of coffee for one — as a Christmas gift, by now you likely have brewed through and tossed out plenty of those little capsules, and perhaps you’ve started to wonder about the environmental impact and the value of convenience.
Turns out that many people have opted for that convenience: In the 12 months ending in November, nearly 46% of the dollars going toward the purchase of coffee or espresso makers went to single-serve machines, according to NPD Group, a market research firm.
Keurig, a major player in the one-cup coffee business, reports that research it commissioned indicated that 13% of all U.S. offices have one of its brewers.
The company confronts the green issue head-on, saying on its website: “As the single-cup coffee market and our Keurig brewing systems grow in popularity, we understand that the impact of the K-Cup portion pack waste stream is one of our most significant environmental challenges.”
The K-cup coffee and tea cartridges are difficult to recycle because they are made of three materials: a plastic cup, which is lined with a heat-sealed paper filter, plus a polyethylene-coated aluminum foil top. Keurig says the packaging keeps coffee fresh, but the cartridges are not biodegradable.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal has reported that 9 billion cartridges have been sold. Keurig said it doesn’t make that information public, but it did say sales of K-Cups more than doubled in 2011 over 2010.
“Finding a more environmentally friendly approach to this packaging challenge is a big priority for us,” Keurig said on its website. “We are working on a few different fronts to improve the environmental characteristics of the K-Cup system.” The company encourages consumers to put used tea and coffee grounds into a composter.
Keurig came on the market in 1998 and is popular not only in homes but also offices, hotels and other spots where making a full pot of coffee often is wasteful, or can lead to that burnt coffee smell as a half-consumed pot sits on the heating unit for too long. The company notes that its coffee drinkers don’t have to grind beans, measure coffee or clean a pot.
The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf late in 2010 introduced One Touch, a machine with a similar mission; its capsules use a foil top and perforated plastic interior. And Nespresso has for years sold a one-cup cartridge coffee maker. Neither company would agree to talk for this story; the Nespresso website said the company collects its aluminum coffee capsules in some places for recycling. (Some coffee makers use single-portion packets that are made of paper and grounds, without metal or plastic containers.)
[Updated Jan. 13 at 3:37 p.m. Customers can choose from more than 300 single-cup brewers and accessories on Amazon, and over the holidays one of the website’s K-cup package was its bestselling grocery item, a spokeswoman said Friday.]
More than 200 varieties of coffee, tea and hot cider, including Celestial Seasonings and Starbucks, are available for the Keurig machine. At $15 or so for 24 cartridges, a cup of coffee costs about 62 cents.
The company sells a reusable filter cartridge, called My K-Cup, right. It works the same way as the disposable cartridge but must be filled with coffee and washed like an ordinary filter.
“My K-Cup is not just a solution for environmentalism,” but it also allows people to buy whatever beans they like best, said Molly Kelley, a Keurig spokeswoman. Keurig’s parent company, Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc., has developed a reputation for environmental awareness and has instituted composting and solar power. A third-party certifier, Fair Trade USA, said late last year that Green Mountain is the No. 1 buyer of fair trade coffee globally.
A coffee-lover and inventor who considered the K-Cups expensive and wasteful came up with My-Kap, a plastic lid that costs about $3 and fits the K-Cup, so the grounds can be rinsed out and the cup reused. If the K-Cup is used twice, its environmental footprint is cut in half, the company said.
And then there’s the Keurig fan who calls herself Madrosed. She shows in a YouTube video how to reuse cartridges. She said she uses one cartridge up to 10 times. She’s not alone.
Karen Higgins, senior management analyst with the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation, said consumers have a difficult time knowing whether an object can be recycled if it doesn’t have a recycling mark — the triangle surrounding a number from 1 to 7.
“These are relatively new products, so I would hope over time they would evolve to be more recyclable,” she said.
Keurig tried out a paper-based pack for tea but decided it didn’t work well enough, Kelley said.
Michael Dupee, vice president for social responsibility at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, said the company takes a holistic approach to assessing its impact on the environment.
He and his wife, for example, often brewed a pot of coffee, and “we’d realize we’re late and leave two-thirds of the pot there. That is a much greater impact because it went all the way back to the growing community,” he said.
Pouring coffee down the sink all the time is not a great idea, certainly.
“It is true that wasting food is a serious problem. Forty percent or so of edible food in the U.S. gets thrown away,” said Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But, Hoover said, the cartridges trade one environmental problem for another.
It’s tricky to calculate a comparison between the two, she said, but she added that manufacturers could find ways to recycle the cartridges and compost the coffee grounds, or ways to make cartridges that can be recycled.
In fact, anyone can take the trouble to open the pods and compost the tea or coffee at home, Higgins said. Keurig has a program for K-Cups to be collected at workplaces and sent to a company that composts the grounds.
Hoover suggested that companies could provide mailers or otherwise collect the used pods; if the companies were responsible for figuring out what to do with the trash, she said, the problems that prevent recycling “are going to get solved fairly quickly.”
The packaging in which cartridges are sold is efficiently designed, reducing waste in materials and delivery. Keurig also tries to recycle or refurbish or reuse brewers and parts that are sent back to the company; last year more than 1,700 tons of material was diverted from landfills, Dupee said.
“A lot of people want us to make it in a certain way — biodegradable, compostable, reusable, zero carbon, modular for disassembly, recyclable,” he said. Green Mountain is assessing the environmental effects from production to trash, Dupee said, adding that the “majority of the environmental impact of this product” is not its disposal.
Any changes ahead? “There’s nothing I’m in a position to talk about.”
As for the workplace convenience argument, NRDC’s Hoover was less than convinced. She said employees could talk to one another before someone makes a pot of coffee, adding: “I have to say that many offices have worked this out for years.”
-- Mary MacVean, firstname.lastname@example.org