K-Cup and other single-use pods: the waste issue, again

by JulieCraves on August 6, 2010

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:

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. NestlÁ©’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 NestlÁ©, Kraft, and Sara Lee. For just a few examples, you can read my posts deconstructing the sustainability claims of NestlÁ©, Kraft, and Sara Lee; read how Kraft and NestlÁ© 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.

Revised on November 28, 2020

Posted in Coffee-related products,K-Cups/Keurig brewers: alternatives

lucinda August 27, 2010 at 8:38 am

Great ideas to reuse the stuffs that we’re generally throwing out after use.

BON September 5, 2010 at 8:21 pm

Thank you for this post. I agree 1000% When I first saw those demonstrated at the department store, my first thought was what a waste. Here we are supposedly trying to clean up our planet and promote conservation and here comes another company just looking at money not the long term effect it is going o take on our soils. you have some great ideas I hope you can push them through we need it.

Roy September 20, 2010 at 8:32 am

Just a few comments re: Keurig/Green Mountain's efforts. Your posts (in your other articles) give kudos to Keurig/Green Mountain for recognizing the waste issue. Your posts also repeat what Keurig has said re: their ongoing efforts at creating a recyclable product.

It's now 3 or 4 years after your initial posts. My observation is, "They don't seem to be trying very hard."

I wrote Keurig directly on this topic several times over the past several years and it's the same answer: "We are working on it." Last time I wrote complaining about the waste inherent in their product, they thanked me for writing, again said "We are working on it," and then sent me a coupon for 24 free K-Cups. Huh?

I am reusing my current stash of K-cups using the My-Kap reusable lid. When the last of my K-cups are gone, so is my use of K-Cups until an earth friendly solution is found. (BTW, I own and have tried the reusable filter by Keurig, but it is not a satifactory solution. Not enough pressure. Too much spray.)

Julie September 20, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Roy, I have to say I agree with you, as do many others, and I'm glad you let GMCR know how you feel. From what I understand from talking to their reps at trade shows, their lack of progress (at least as far as getting a recyclable product to market) is not for lack of effort or honest concern, but technical issues.

Single use coffee brewers are extremely popular and while I don't feel they are a very eco-friendly choice, I feel they are worth talking about on some level because so many people use them. I still feel if people have to use them, Keurig/GMCR is the best choice because of the coffee inside. Maybe this isn't the best way to look at it, but for me, first-world waste streams are less troubling than third-world habitat destruction and impoverishment.

Tobi-Dawne Smith March 27, 2011 at 11:05 pm

Thank you for this!
It is nice to see someone looking at the company as a whole vs. just the product they create. I’ll admit, we are considering purchasing a single serving coffee machine. We make maybe two or three cups of coffee a week… so even our four cup machine is completely overkill for us. I believe the pods are a better environmental choice, but the companies that are producing them have disgusting histories on a number of levels. At least the k-cups are available from companies who source sustainably and engage in fair trade. Either way it is something I am still wrestling with… but these days, I find I wrestle with more choices than not when it comes to anything that is consumer driven.

JACraves March 28, 2011 at 6:33 am

Well, I have to say I am acutely disappointed that Green Mountain has signed a deal with JM Smucker — now people can get Folger’s in a K-Cup. Talk about the worst of both worlds. Choose the coffee carefully!

Ivory May 10, 2011 at 12:43 pm

My questions is:
What can we do to change this?

I have been keeping my K-Cups since day 1 because I am loathe to throw away anything plastic. Let me tell you, they are piling up! Is there a recycle program in the works yet by GMCR? I see from a prior post that they claim to be working on it. Until then I guess I will have to keep stock-piling my used K-Cups or begin re-using them in ways that were suggested above (but I’ve got to say, I usually don’t have time for that jazz when flying out the door five minutes behind schedule for work as is usually the case….).

I hope they figure out something soon. And I certainly hope that when they do, they market it in a BIG WAY so that users can be alerted of their sustainable and responsible options.

JACraves May 10, 2011 at 9:16 pm

What can you do? Don’t use them. Use one of the alternatives that is reusable and in which you can use your own coffee. The plastic used in the K-Cups, as I understand it, is NOT recyclable because it has to withstand high heat and has some sort of particular layers/structure that have to do with oxygen exchange. Thus, your stash of K-Cups will likely never be able to be recycled. I believe the goal of GMCR is to find a material that meets the requirements that can be recycled by consumers, not by GMCR themselves. Please find an alternative.

Margeret McPherson July 11, 2011 at 12:09 pm

I just called our local recycling hotline and asked if I could dispose of the used K-cups in my recycle bag as the cup is plastic and top is foil. They said YES but I would have to remove the coffee from each cup. Not a problem. Hope others will now do the same.

Jojo September 8, 2011 at 7:02 pm

Unfortunately as Julie Pointed out, they are not recyclable. Your recycle place might tell you that they take them, but I assure you, they are not actually recycling them. They are most likely going right in the dump with the other trash and or being stock piled somewhere.

Sadly most plastic is not recycled, but recaptured.

Rhonda Parsons July 16, 2012 at 7:19 am

I also remove the coffee and recycle the cups. I however; will stop using them and start using the small reusable gray cup that came with my Kerig machine. It may take a few seconds longer but it’s worth it. It still surprises me that at a time when the recycling/waste management etc. was such a global issue, at the forefront, that these machines and cups became so popular and really took off. Also, everyone I speak to says they just throw their cups in the garbage. I really don’t get it!

Scott October 21, 2011 at 9:21 am

I agree with your assessment about the waste of k-cups. Here’s an article that illustrate the resources needed to make k-cups – a story that seems to resonate with readers.


Sustainable coffee and coffee makers is the solution.

Heather Katsoulis January 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm

I just cam across the Ekobrew reusable cup for the Keurig and really love it. It’s a bit simpler than the My K-cup – only 1 piece and you don’t have to remove the brewer’s holster.

JACraves January 5, 2012 at 4:39 pm

Heather, I wrote about the ekobrew here. It does seem to be getting the most positive reviews of all the current alternatives.

Wendy January 16, 2012 at 8:54 am

I think Keurig is doing what they can to minimize their carbon footprint on these k-cups, but the technological problems are going to prove more or less insurmountable. The only TRULY responsible thing they could do is yank them from the market (perhaps with a full page NY Times ad saying the environment and survival of this planet and its people are more important to them than the millions of $ they’re making? — fat chance, but a girl can dream, can’t she?). In the meantime, let’s put this on the lazy, entitled, environmentally ignorant consumers who continue to buy these products.

Frances Morrow March 13, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Is there any health risk in getting two cups of coffee out of a single pod by
adding water and using pod over again?

JACraves March 13, 2012 at 2:06 pm

I doubt it, unless it somehow got moldy. But I’m very sure it would taste awful.

Lesley April 24, 2012 at 10:21 pm

I just found San Francisco Bay Coffee’s alternative K cup. It is manufactured with a plastic ring that holds the cup in place, but the filter is not surrounded by the plastic “cup’ part. Less plastic…more eco friendly, and a better price. The literature on their website about their product looks very promising too, fair trade etc. I use the eco brew reusable cup most of the time and LOVE it!

JACraves April 25, 2012 at 5:44 am

Lesley, the company who produces San Francisco Bay Coffee, Rogers Family, does a lot of sustainability work on the ground, including bird inventories of their main suppliers. I will be doing a profile of the company sometime in the future.

Rhonda Parsons July 16, 2012 at 7:22 am

I use the K-cups but I will stop. Can’t believe at a time when the environment, recyling etc. is at the forefront, this product would take off. I don’t get it.

Michelr Gronholm July 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Michele Gronholm on July 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm
We have a new product for the keurig machine that is available on amazon and at our website http://www.singlecupaccessories.com, that will make your mornings so much faster and mess free when filling your my k-cup, solo fill, and ekobrew. Our product is called the Exacta-K , it is amazing and our customers that have bought it feel the same! Please check out our website !

Reply ↓

Colleen B May 16, 2014 at 9:42 am

Doesn’t a large coffee can or tub also generates waste . . . maybe more than the tiny k-cups??

JulieCraves May 16, 2014 at 12:07 pm

No, because coffee cans and plastic tubs made of recycled material and most people will recycle them, while K-Cups are NOT recyclable. As for the equivalency of materials, it takes over 40 K-Cups to equal a pound of coffee, so if someone wants to figure out how much plastic is in a one-pound coffee container and in 40 K-Cups, go for it. They are probably not too far off each other.

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