I’ve written several posts on the Keurig single-cup coffee brewers, or more specifically, about the K-Cup single use coffee “pods” and the waste they generate. I have explored, in detail, three ways to cope with this waste:
- How to refill and reuse a K-Cup using plastic wrap.
- How to refill and reuse a K-Cup using the My-Kap reusable lid system.
- A review of the Keurig My K-Cup resusable coffee filter basket.
In each post I’ve also discussed the progress (or lack thereof) that Keurig owner Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR) has had on finding sustainable or recyclable materials for use in the K-Cups.
This week the New York Times had a worthwhile article on the continuing dilemma of the convenience of single-cup coffee versus the waste it generates. The article notes that it is expected that nearly 3 billion K-Cups will be sold this year. (We’ll get to the other brands of single-use coffee pods in a minute.)
The article mentions that GMCR are experimenting with a paper K-Cup (no foil or plastic) for use with tea this year; the issues surrounding brew temperature and freshness of coffee apparently still have them stymied. GMCR goes on to say that they have done a life-cycle analysis of the environmental impact of the K-Cup and determined that most of the impacts occur where the packaging is produced, not where the waste is disposed. But this doesn’t mean the waste stream doesn’t have a big impact, and this leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of some consumers.
The article goes on to describe the fact that some of the competitors of K-Cups can be recycled. This is a bit misleading, as these options are very limited. TerraCycle will reuse the plastic from Kraft’s Tassimo pods in Britain (and Mars’ Flavia packages). These recycling options are not available to consumers in the U.S., but offices and food services providers. Nestlé’s aluminum Nespresso pods can be recycled at some propietary boutiques in a few European countries. Sara Lee’s Senseo pods are made of paper and therefore compostable (how many consumers just throw them away, though?).
Even supposing these options were widely and easily available to consumers worldwide, I still believe that K-Cups are the most environmentally-friendly product in the single-use arena.
Why? GMCR sources coffee responsibly and has a strong corporate responsiblity and environmental record.* You simply cannot say the same thing about Nestlé, Kraft, and Sara Lee. For just a few examples, you can read my posts deconstructing the sustainability claims of Nestlé, Kraft, and Sara Lee; read how Kraft and Nestlé got caught purchasing illegally grown coffee because they don’t even know where much of their coffee comes from; and take a look at the how a major organization ranked these big coffee companies in areas like the environment, human rights, health and safety, etc. Finally, you can see how these big corporate coffee roasters exploit farmers and the environment, to the detriment of us all.
The most sustainable choice is to not use single-cup brewing systems in the first place. If they are going to be used, then consumers have to look at the big picture. With the Keurig system, there are alternatives to throwing away K-Cups, as outlined in my other posts. If disposable K-Cups are going to be used, consumers are easily able to find sustainably-sourced coffee, including Rainforest Alliance certified Caribou Coffee K-Cups. And at least using K-Cups will be better than supporting the dismal environmental and ethical records of the big corporate coffee roasters that manufacture other brands.
*UPDATE: Now that Folgers and Dunkin Donuts coffees are available in K-Cups and GMCR seems willing to license to anybody, no matter how bad the sourcing, I am modifying this statement. Let’s just say that more responsibly-sourced coffees (including Caribou and GMCRs own coffees) are available for the Keurig brewer, and there are a lot of options for avoiding the use of wasteful K-Cups altogether by using your own coffee. Do that.