K-Cups are now recyclable! Not really.

by on September 1, 2011

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters’s Keurig division has announced a “recovery” program for their naughty little K-Cups (already incorrectly being referred to in the media as a recycling program). I’ve talked about the waste issue surrounding these single-serve coffee portion packs specifically, as well as posted two ways to re-use them, and three different products that allow you to use the Keurig brewers and avoid the K-Cup dilemma altogether.

In response to the environmental impact of K-Cups, Keurig has launched the Grounds to Grow On program. This sounds like a great idea, but it has some limitations.

  • It is only available in some (22) states. This program is in a testing phase with an intention to go national next year.
  • It is only available for business locations. Only about 10-11% of Keurig brewer sales are to “away-from-home” locations, based on 2006-2008 data.
  • It costs $59.75  for five small “recovery bins” which hold 175 K-Cups each, or $114.75 for larger bins which hold 450 K-Cups.  Shipping to and fro is included in the cost.
  • The K-Cups aren’t recycled. The grounds are composted, while the K-Cups themselves are burned to produce steam energy by partner Covanta Energy. This is referred to as “renewable energy” a few times. I have a hard time seeing how waste-to-energy could be considered renewable, and I’m not the only one.  The irony, of course, is that recycling is the enemy of the never-ending stream of garbage needed to feed waste-to-energy facilities. Covanta is one of the companies pushing to have waste-to-energy defined as renewable, as it would make the company eligible for subsidies. Keurig’s choice of Covanta as a partner in the Grounds to Grow On venture is unfortunate. Multiple Covanta incinerator facilities have been fined in several states for emissions violations, including Connecticut (twice), New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. Further, they have a history of labor relations problems.

I certainly love the idea of all the coffee grounds being made into compost. As for the K-Cups, perhaps burning them is better than having them end up in a landfill, providing you believe waste-to-energy is clean and safe. Even if this aspect weren’t a topic of debate, the success of Grounds to Grow On depends on participation. This program was rolled out after a pilot test in 2010, but I have seen no figures on the participation rate for the pilot.

Purchasing the bins is pretty expensive, and adds 5 to 7 cents, or about 10%, to the cost of each K-Cup. Once a supply of bins has been returned, more will have to be purchased. How many businesses and consumers will make this investment?

Even in a bin is available, it is not a sure bet that everyone will drop in their K-Cups.  An EPA study (PDF) of found that participation in voluntary residential curbside recycling without incentives averaged around 68%.  With the disincentive of having to purchase the bins, I’m not sure how many K-Cups will be actually be removed from the traditional waste stream with this program.

Finally, some of the patents on K-Cup technology are due to expire next year.  This may mean others will manufacture K-Cups with different materials that cannot enter the Grounds to Grow on recovery program.

It looks like a lot of effort went into this program, and I don’t want to seem like too much of a curmudgeon. As my mom would have said, it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye, but perhaps not quite as rosy as first meets the unpoked eye. You can read more details at Grounds to Grow On.

In an upcoming post, I’ll be looking at the recycling of Nespresso coffee capsules. Due to a stunning bit of greenwashing, not nearly as many capsules are being recycled as Nespresso/Nestlé would have you believe.

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Revised on March 23, 2014

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

Nate September 2, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Thanks so much for your informative articles!

I have to say though that it is a little ironic that you are kind of dissing the K-cups, but your advertising is for purchasing more k-cups. ;)

Nate September 2, 2011 at 7:24 pm

On second thought that may be way out of your control, so I apologize. Anyway just to emphasize I am applauding your articles! They are so well written and informative!

JACraves September 2, 2011 at 8:25 pm

You’re right…it’s contextual advertising that comes up depending on what’s on the page. I have to go into Google Adsense and manually block the URLs, if I can remember to write them down when they appear. I think I at least got rid of all the Dunkin Donuts and Maxwell House ads!

Glad you like the site! Thanks for reading.

Doug October 4, 2012 at 5:07 pm

I peel the foil cover off and pull the grounds and filter out, and toss the plastic into our community recycle bins. Takes about 30 second to do this.
So, I guess with a little work, that are recyclable. To avoid them altogether, I’ll start using the filter they now sell for regular bulk ground coffee.

JACraves October 5, 2012 at 5:28 am

Doug, the type of plastic in the K-Cups is not recyclable. Putting this in your local recycling waste stream can do more harm than good. Only certain kinds of plastic are accepted by recycling programs because they melt at different temperatures (and the K-Cup is made of a high-melting point plastic). When the wrong kind of plastic gets mixed in, it can ruin a whole batch. A single bottle of #3 plastic, for instance, can cause a batch of 10,000 #3 bottles to be contaminated and go to the landfill. Since K-cups are so small, they can easily get missed in the sorting process — if they don’t jam the sorting machines in the first place.

PaulBuhl December 24, 2012 at 6:19 pm

JACraves, according to Jose Menera, plant manager of Recycling Services, you are incorrect. Here’s his quote: “Everything in these cartridges is recyclable – the plastic, the filter and the aluminum foil. But you put them all together in one item? It’s a real problem.” So he is saying that tossing them as a whole item into the recycling bin without separating the various materials is the real problem, but this does also include the gluing of the foil along the top edge of the plastic. But seems like a very solvable problem. I’ve been breaking them apart into separate materials and now cut the top edge off and dispose of just that area. Still much better than throwing the whole unit into the trash.

James Hayes-Bohanan September 4, 2011 at 1:46 am

Wow! Thanks for delving into the increasingly complex world of the KCUP. The fact that GMCR will go to these lengths to greenwash this product shows that it really does not fit what their customers expect of the company.

It also shows how much people will sacrifice for the illusion of convenience. Really — paying $30-35 per pound for pre-staled coffee, just to save a couple minutes in the morning? And outsourcing the composting of grounds, when they would be so nice on one’s own hydrangeas? To save how much “work” in reality?

I put “work” in quotes because caring for coffee each morning can be a pleasant part of the day, rather than a chore. http://webhost.bridgew.edu/jhayesboh/coffee/coffeecare.html

Ben September 5, 2011 at 11:56 am

I think this is a great idea. It is very important to decrease the amount of waste we produce, and use that waste in productive ways. This is a perfect example of that. We must keep our planet clean for future generations.

TylersCoffees September 6, 2011 at 7:16 am

Dang, I had no idea how unsustainable those little buggers were! Good thing we dropped our efforts to be picked up by them! There is no way I’d want to be associated with them now.

RayKeating January 2, 2013 at 5:14 pm

Re: recycling K-Cups I’ve been doing the same as Doug explained, although I’m not quite as quick. But I’m very disappointed to learn that it may not be wise to continue putting the empty plastic cups in our “mixed recyclables” bin due to the type of plastic they are made. Is there any way to clarify that issue – or is it likely to be OK in some areas but not in others?

JACraves January 3, 2013 at 1:43 pm

For whatever reason, Keurig doesn’t ever seem willing to come out and say “K-Cups are made of #blah plastic.” I believe that it is, then, probably #7, which is mixed or layered plastic (able to withstand the neat and pressure of the brewer).

SO, here’s the bottom line:
– If you want to try to recycle a K-Cup, you must completely dismantle it: grounds, filter, lid.
– Then you have to make sure that if you want to recycle the aluminum foil lid, you have to separate it from the film that is fused to it, and remove all adhesive. I don’t know how easy this is, if it’s possible.
– All adhesive must be removed from the cup, as well. There is good reason for this! Foreign contaminants — even very small amounts — can completely ruin a very large batch of melted plastic. Not only does the whole shebang get tossed, but it may also mess up the machinery.
– If you are successful in this, you need to contact your local recycler…whoever picks up or processes your recycling. There are many different companies that have contracts with various municipalities, etc. Make sure to talk to someone who really knows what’s going on! Ask them if they 1) take #7 plastic, and 2) whether they will accept objects the size of a K-Cup and/or the foil lids, due to possibility of sorting machine jamming.

For what it’s worth, the newer Vue cups are made of #5 plastic. Still not accepted by all recyclers, and with some of the same size/dismantling issues.

fbf August 19, 2013 at 2:40 am

I could not refrain from commenting. Perfectly written!

JACraves December 24, 2012 at 8:31 pm

It really depends on whether your local recycling facility will take the component parts (plastic cup separated from filter, lid, and all adhesive) and foil lid (if it can be separated from the polyethylene coating) and in such small pieces. Many don’t, and part of the problem is the same as the perfectly-recyclable aluminum Nespresso capsules: they are small enough to jam sorting machinery. So while technically they could be recycled, the vast majority end up in landfills.

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