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Like many Americans, 29-year-old Tiffany Mooney uses a single-serving beverage brewing system to produce her daily cup of coffee.
She loads the at-home brewer in the morning with a pint-sized plastic coffee capsule and within minutes her hot drink is ready. Around lunchtime, she pops in a plastic-encased Cappuccino-flavored brew to keep her going.
And right before bed, the Hanceville, Alabama, resident opts for a “relaxing” hot chocolate flavor.
“That thing is my life,” Mooney said about her Walmart-brand coffee maker. “But I know that tossing the empty little cups in the garbage after I use them isn’t the most environmentally friendly thing to do.”
They’re small, convenient and filled with every flavor imaginable.
For some, they’re pricey to buy. Others purchase them in bulk by the dozen. Regardless of how or where you buy the 2-by-2-inch pods, these modern-day coffee containers increasingly contribute to the mountain of plastic that’s ending up in landfills.
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To put it mildly, “Coffee pods are one of the best examples of unnecessary single-use plastics that are polluting our planet,” said John Hocevar, the campaign director of Greenpeace USA, an environmental nonprofit organization. “Many end up getting incinerated, dumping poison into our air, water and our soil.”
Coffee pods can wind up in rivers where they wash into lakes and oceans. Over time, the plastic breaks down into smaller pieces that choke and kill wildlife, Hocevar said.
Whether K-Cups, or Nespresso Capsules, or other brands, coffee pods are generally small plastic containers with aluminum foil lids that can create one cup of coffee with the press of a button. Despite being substantially more expensive per pound than regular coffee brewed in a pot, they’ve been the go-to solution for caffeine addicts who need a quick fix since the ’90s.
But the big boom happened around 2012, according to the National Coffee Association (NCA). In 2012, about 10 percent of coffee consumers brewed using this method, and the percentage increased each year since.
By 2018, the number of users more than doubled. Today, 41 percent of Americans own a single-cup coffee maker, according to NCA and Statista, a market research firm.
Share of U.S. consumers who own a single-cup coffee brewing system from 2005 to 2018* (Photo: National Coffee Association/ Statista)
Front and center at supermarkets, drugstores and select dollar chains nationwide, popular brands include Keurig Green Mountain, Starbucks, Folger Coffee Co. and Kraft Heinz Co.
Keurig, Inc. launched its K-Cups for the home in 2004, after growing popularity in the office market. Within 10 years, enough K-Cups were sold that if placed end-to-end, they would circle the globe 10 times, Hocevar said.
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Coffee pods surrounded by other groceries. (Photo: Reviewed / Jackson Ruckar)
A Keurig spokesperson said the company sold 10.5 billion K-Cups for the fiscal year ending in September 2015, which is the last year public data was available, the Chicago Tribune notes.
Keurig went private after a $13.9 billion buyout by JAB Holding Co. in 2016.
That same year, some cities around the globe began banning K-Cups entirely, due to the product’s recycle-resistant nature. In Hamburg, Germany, coffee pods were banned from state-run buildings as part of an environmental movement.
Even the creator of the K-Cup has stopped using them out of guilt, saying that he “feels bad sometimes” about the product’s wasteful impact, according to the Atlantic.
The Swiss company Nestlé began making headway with its Nespresso coffee packaged in pods in the 1990s. While there have been waste concerns, the negative impact is lessened since the pods are made of aluminum instead of plastic.
“Environmentally, at least aluminum is recyclable,” Hocevar said. He noted that high levels of aluminum exposure may have negative effects on health.
Part of the problem with recycling tiny coffee pods stems from traceability.
The capsules are often too small for some sorting systems at recycling plants to pick up. Also, recycling centers can be overwhelmed with mountains of trash, so sifting through a mound of garbage for tiny capsules isn’t always efficient.
“K-cups bog down the entire waste management system,” Hocevar said. “They make things more expensive to recycle that would otherwise be easy and inexpensive such as aluminum cans.”
In 2014, Keurig Green Mountainsaid it plans by 2020 to change the plastic composition in the billions of K-cup single-serving coffee containers it sells annually. The company began testing recyclable K-Cup pods in 2015 and is collaborating with waste management facilities to make sure recyclers can process the capsules.
The new K-Cup, composed of polypropylene, can be sorted, shredded and sold to manufacturers that use recycled plastic.
Currently, you can recycle K-Mugs, K-Carafes, and Vue pods, along with pods for two K-Cup varieties – Green Mountain Breakfast Blend and Green Mountain Breakfast Blend Decaf.
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Nespresso has a large corporate sustainability program, which includes a list of commitments detailing how it plans to change its operations to decrease its negative impact on the environment.
Specifically, by 2020 Nespresso aims to recycle used capsules collected by the company into new capsules, when “it makes environmental sense.” In March 2019, the coffee capsule company announced plans to spend more than $1 million to allow for curbside recycling of its single-use packaging in New York City.
“Nespresso is deeply committed to the circular use of our products, choosing aluminum packaging because it both protects the quality of our exceptional coffees and can be recycled and reused again and again,” said Guillaume Le Cunff, president and CEO of Nespresso USA.
Some consumers have developed do-it-yourself ways of reusing the pods – from creating artwork to using them as tiny flower pots.
“My 7-year-old niece and I do little projects with them like tea parties with her dolls,” coffee pod fan Mooney said. “I use them to measure out meds for my dog and cats. (Coffee pods) are the perfect size for a cup of medication.”
Still, critics are skeptical about the future of coffee pods.
There’s a petition on KillTheKCup.org to help bring attention to the growing waste produced by K-Cups.
“We’re not asking the manufacturer to change. We’re demanding governments kill the K-Cup” the website says. “Other places are already banning plastic straws and bags. Why not non-compostable K-Cups?”
A “Kill the K-Cup” disaster movie emerged in 2015 and took the internet by storm. The spoof film depicts monsters made of coffee pods who disembark from coffee pod flying saucers and rain terror on a city using Keurig pods.
Other environmentalists are more optimistic about the future of convenient coffee containers.
“The big producers like Nestlé, Starbucks, and Keurig, they are clearly aware and understand the problem really well,” Hocevar said. “They’re slowly chipping away at the problem trying to make things less terrible. Reusable and refillable options are the wave of the future.”
Do you reuse your coffee pods? Let consumer tech reporter Dalvin Brown know on Twitter: @Dalvin_Brown.
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