Update: In early 2016, the New York Times reported on Keurig’s annoucement that they would finally be coming out with a K-Cup made of plastic recyclable by typical municipal facilities. But it also pointed out the continued environmentally-negative aspects of K-Cups outlined below, including high energy costs to produce and potentially low consumer cooperation. It did not address problems with the size of the cups jamming sorting machines at recycling facilities, or potential contamination if consumers don’t remove the lids. Or, oh yeah, the insane cost. See this post for alternatives.
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.