K-Cups: Still trashy after all these years

by JulieCraves on March 2, 2015

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.

Keurig Green Mountain (KGM) has released its 2014 sustainability report. As far as their progress on reducing waste from K-Cups, the story is much the same as last year… and many previous years.

  • K-Cups are still not recyclable*.
  • The goal is still to make all K-Cups recyclable by the year 2020.
  • The report notes that K-Cups were first introduced in 1998. Thus (if successful), it will have taken KGM 22 years to achieve their goal.

THIS IS CRAZY. First and most obvious, how many K-Cups will have been produced by KGM and sent to a landfill by that point? In  2013 alone, it was estimated at 8.3 billion. What about third-party manufactured packs that are produced now that the original K-Cups are off-patent?   How many of these are and will be produced? Are or will any of them be recyclable?

Second, will there even be any of the brewers around still using the original K-Cups by 2020? It sort of seems as if this exercise will be a moot point by then: the product will have run its course, with billions still sitting in landfills.

Meanwhile, KGMs newer Keurig 2.0 brewer compatible portion packs — the Vue Pack, K-Carafe, and Bolt Pack — are recyclable, sort of. They are made of #5 plastic (polypropylene) and can be recycled according to KGM, in 60% of U.S. communities — although often not curbside. Note that it requires several steps by consumers, and extra effort tends to reduce the number of units actually recycled, especially among uber-convenience oriented Keurig users. The overall recycling rate in the U.S. is only 34%, a low rate of compliance which reduces the significance of single-serve coffee portion packs being made of recyclable material.

Isn’t it so much better for the environment to create a cup of coffee that only produces compostable organic coffee grounds? This can be achieved, for less money and with superior results, with any number of methods, such as a Hario pour over cone  or Chemex and a reusable filter, or a French Press.

And, by the way, the Keurig brewers are manufactured in China and Malaysia.

You can read more about the high cost of K-Cups and other single-serve capsule coffees here, and a summary of reusable alternatives to K-Cups for Keurig brewers here.


*I’m still surprised at how many people say they recycle K-Cups. As I — and KGM — have explained many times they are made out of a plastic that cannot be recycled. It doesn’t matter if you peel off the lids, remove the filter, grounds and all the adhesive, and carry them to your recycling center delivered on a velvet pillow.  The facility will sort them out and send them to the landfill or incinerator. If they don’t and they get mixed in with other plastic, they can potentially contaminate a whole batch as surely as a turd in a punchbowl.

P.S. After I completed this post but prior to publishing it, The Atlantic came out with a great article on the wastefulness of K-Cups. Take a look.

Revised on January 15, 2022

Posted in K-Cups/Keurig brewers: alternatives,Keurig Green Mountain

Jim March 4, 2015 at 11:44 am

This is yet another reason why we’re a big advocate of reusable filters. K-Cups are notorious for their waste and because these single-cup automatic brewing systems have become so popular these past few years the issue is getting worse with people brewing multiple times on a daily basis and discarded the plastic cups carelessly.

And you’re right coffee drinkers can get much better results by using an alternative brewing method such as a Hario or Chemex and a reusable filter, or a French Press/AeroPress with reusable filters as well.

Thanks for posting this was a nice well researched read.


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