K-Cup Pileup: How Your Instant Coffee Habit Is Affecting The Environment

If you love instant coffee and the environment, you may have a conflict of interest. Here’s how to make your java habit more eco-friendly.

June 4, 2018
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For many of us, coffee is more than a morning pleasure. It’s an imperative boost to get us going in the morning or to reinvigorate our spirits in the afternoon.

Not everyone has the time (or budget) to hit up Starbucks or their local coffee shop of choice when their daily dose of java is required, though, and that’s where instant coffee makers come in. One of the most popular countertop fixtures is the Keurig, which offers selections that many feel are just as tasty and refreshing as anything their local barista can whip up.

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But there is something coming between some owners and their Keurigs that is taking away from their coffee-sipping joy—the K-Cup, that small container which holds the components of their coffee or tea flavor of choice, has been deemed environmentally unfriendly. The bad rap has stirred up a Twitter rebellions and actually affected the company’s bottom line.

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So, why are so many environmentalists condemning the K-Cup? And is their outrage earned or misplaced? Let’s look at the facts and what can be done to make our coffee habits better for the planet we share.

Is the K-Cup really that bad?

Let’s get right to it—is the K-Cup truly as bad for the environment as the headlines make it out to be? The answer is yeah, pretty much. It comes down to two things: how many there are and how hard they are to get rid of.

“According to Euromonitor, in the United States, consumers drank around 949,000 tons of coffee, making up about 97 percent of North America consumption, with 9 percent of the coffee that Americans drank at home being brewed from a pod,” notes Jennifer Kaplan, who teaches Food Systems at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, California.

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She also estimates that coffee pods are purchased in about “one third of North American retail coffee sales, and Keurig holds near-total control of the market.”

In 2015, Mashable estimated that around 9 billion K-Cups wound up in landfills in 2014; that same year, a similar piece in The Atlantic noted that discarded K-Cups placed end to end could wrap around the world 10.5 times.

What makes it so environmentally unfriendly? According to Jane Boland, a science research and development officer at Frontier, a non-governmental environmental organization, K-Cups are “made out of a blend of plastics (referred to in the plastics industry as plastic #7) which cannot be recycled—except potentially as plastic lumber, but most city recycling programs would not be able to support this.”

“Any cups that are recyclable would still require the consumer to completely separate the individual components—i.e., the tin cover and the filter—from the plastic before disposal in a recycling bin,” she says. “I assume that since the main driver of K-Cup use is convenience, the rates of people separating the components before placing in a recycle bin would be extremely low.”

And even if you did separate all your K-Cup components, the problem doesn’t quite go away.

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“Most plastic from recycling programs is shipped to China, where 80 percent of what is usable material is downcycled into items such as fleece garments, which generate microplastics that end up in waterways after washing,” Boland adds. “The remainder is incinerated or buried. Additionally, in late 2017, China started to restrict imports of plastic waste from other countries, which is creating massive buildups of rubbish at recycling centers around the globe.”

Even the inventor of K-Cups is sorry he made them.

The K-Cup has become so hated by environmental groups—and is such a general lightning rod for bad PR—that even John Sylvan, Keurig co-founder and creator of the K-Cup, has misgivings over his invention.

“I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it,” he told The Atlantic.

Sylvan designed the original K-Cup back in the early 1990s, inspired to replace office coffee pots that would grow stale and bitter over the course of the day. His gamble that consumers would prefer a fresher tasting single serve option paid off, making the company worth over $14 billion in 2014. (Sylvan was bought out by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, now Keurig Green Mountain, in 1997.)

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He originally made the pods by hand before supply and demand afforded his company the ability to mass produce the product. But in that same piece, Sylvan recognized that he had, in effect, created a monster, noting the Keurig was “a single-serve delivery mechanism for an addictive substance.”

It was clear that Sylvan was stung by the criticism of his invention, but he used the profits he earned from Keurig to form a much more green-friendly venture to help offset his invention’s harm: ZonBak, a cost-effective solar panel company.

The company has provided a fix…sort of.

Once the word got out about the K-Cup’s environmental impact, many consumers were visibly upset and worried about contributing more waste to the planet. In 2011, backlash emerged on Twitter in the form of the #KillTheCup hashtag.

As a result, Keurig Green Mountain sold $60 million less in K-Cups than the year prior, a 2016 piece from NPR noted. Reporter Rebecca Wong noting the cups’ controversial nature was one contributing factor to declining sales: “I think that’s one of the biggest problems with a K-Cup is that it does have such a negative environmental impact and it’s something that Keurig has acknowledged.”

The previous year, Monique Oxender, chief sustainability officer at Keurig Green Mountain, told WTOP, “We’re tackling this on a number of fronts. It’s a tough challenge, but we are committed to solving it.” The company’s goal, according to the 2015 article, was to create a completely recyclable cup by 2020.

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This did little to silence critics who felt the company was moving too slowly. In response to the continuing outcry, Keurig Green Mountain announced in 2016 that a fully recyclable K-Cup model, composed of polypropylene, was on the way. It was only a bandaid on a much bigger wound, however, as it was limited to just four of their signature flavors.

“Recyclable as they may be, the new cups are not compostable. They are not reusable,” a 2016 New York Times piece pointed out. “And Keurig will still be selling billions of pieces of plastic each year.”

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So, as the coffee drinking population waits for a truly environmentally conscious K-Cup to arrive, what are some more eco-friendly options in the meantime?

What’s a green alternative to the K-Cup?

While Kaplan says the most environmentally conscious alternative to a Keurig is to “not use pods” at all, a compromise is to “use My K-Cups or other reusable pods that can be filled with any standard ground coffee.” Those, she says, “eliminate the plastic used in disposable pods, and reduction of source materials is the highest order of resource conservation.”

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“Reusable pods are still most likely made from plastic,” Boland cautions, “but there are other materials used, such as aluminum. I think the more salient issue is that they are less convenient.”

Instead of slaving over recycling something so decidedly hard to recycle, she instead advocates for “single-serve stovetop percolators, French presses, or coffee makers that automatically grind beans and deliver single servings.”

Folks looking to ditch their Keurig for more environmentally friendly options are in luck, as there are many companies catering to their needs, including New Hampshire Coffee, which offers a 100-percent compostable coffee pod that can be used in their own system, or, with the additional purchase of a “pod holster,” can be used with Keurigs and similar coffee makers.

Another option is the Breville YouBrew system, a pod-free system which gives you the choice to brew everything from one to 12 cups.

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Another alternative is Dean’s Beans, an organic coffee company founded on environmental activism. Founder Dean Cycon showed his anti-K-Cup commitment earlier than most—he actually turned down a contract from the manufacturer: “I refused to work with them until they created a more environmentally friendly cup.”

Instead, he was inspired to work on an alternative.

Dean supporting indigenous farmers in Africa (via Dean’s Beans)

“I decided that we would do it ourselves. …I contacted a lot of paper companies and cup manufacturers, and ultimately, one manufacturer came out with a recyclable plastic cup that we could use,” he says. “I was asked if I wanted to buy the machinery and own the patent for it, and I said absolutely not.”

“They should be made available to everybody, especially in light of the environmental catastrophe that the K-Cup had created. We have offered the recyclable cups for several years, and now they are ubiquitous.”

The entire coffee trade is harming for the environment.

It’s important to note, amongst all the heat Keurig has received over the environmental impact of the K-Cup, they aren’t the lone offenders from the coffee industry.

Environmental issues extend far beyond the K-Cup for coffee drinkers, which should give everyone patting themselves on the back for ditching a Keurig some pause. There’s still more work to be done.

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A 2014 study published in Bioscience discovered that the impact of coffee farms on our planet has never been worse, the irony of which was not lost on co-author Shalene Jha, assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Natural Sciences.

“The paradox is that there is greater public interest than ever in environmentally friendly coffee, but where coffee production is expanding across the globe, it tends to be very intensive,” she notes.

The chief environmental problem posed by coffee farms is most of their product is grown in direct sunlight. Removing native forest trees has a detrimental impact on wildlife, including the already decreased bee population. It also results in less protection from erosion and worse air and water filtration. The study states that in 2010, 41 percent of coffee farmland had no shade at all.

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The solution? Only buy coffee from certified coffee farms: “Our scientists say a certified coffee farm is the next best thing to rainforest,” Chris Wille, head of sustainable agriculture at Rainforest Alliance, told HuffPost in 2014.

What else can be done?

If you’re looking for other ways you can be more proactive in protecting the environment, there are plenty of options, and it can begin with small steps, according to Boland: “While it sometimes feels like our personal efforts to reduce the amount of waste we generate are a drop in the bucket, every action we take influences the social norms of the people around us.”

“Convincing your office to switch from plastic K-Cups to more sustainable alternatives, for example,” she continues, “may inspire one of your co-workers to stop buying vegetables wrapped in plastic at the local supermarket.”

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These demands force corporations to change course or face the wrath of consumers.

“The K-Cup industry is already responding to increased demand from consumers for less plastic waste in our products, and supermarkets around the world are experimenting with plastic free aisles,” Boland says. “Every little action we take to reduce plastic in our lives contributes to this movement.”

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So today, as you sit down with your cup of coffee, reflect on what steps you can take to make the Earth a greener place, and let that burst of caffeinated energy spur you into action.

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