Coffee pods: synonymous with convenience for coffee fans, they are also creating a real environmental problem. Keurig Green Mountain, Inc., the maker of the ubiquitous Keurig machines and K-cups (and the largest producer of coffee pods), reported that in 2014 they sold 9.8 billion Keurig-brewed pods. This is enough to encircle Earth’s equator 12 times. Setting aside the unnecessary packaging issue, only 5% of these billions of coffee pods are recyclable: most are made out of plastic number 7 (which is difficult to recycle) AND they are attached to an aluminum lid and filled with coffee grounds. To be clear: these pods are difficult to recycle at best, and at worst they are creating a landfill nightmare: 60 billion K-Cups have gone to landfills so far and more continue to go everyday. In 2014, estimates are that 13 billion K-Cups went to landfills (that’s the same as 412,227 per second…yep, per second). The cause of this: 1 in 3 American households have a Keurig machine, plus the rest of the world. And that does not account for all of the machines that reside in office suites (even here at Ursinus) while the traditional coffee maker sits unused under the sink. Even the inventor of the K-cup, John Sylvan, expressed remorse for creating such a wasteful product in an interview with The Atlantic, and also noted that he doesn’t own a Keurig himself because “they’re kind of expensive to use”.
Though some competitors have introduced reusable coffee pods to use in Keurig machines, Keurig Green Mountain, Inc. responded by creating a second-generation machine that only accepts Keurig brand K-Cups, so the competitors’ more sustainable pods can’t be used. However, the reusable/refillable pods can still be used in early-generation Keurig machines (just not in newer single-cup or multi-cup machines though).
Reusable coffee pods, in addition to addressing the waste issue also take on the sky-high cost of coffee pod coffee. If you compare the cost of a cup of coffee made with a Starbucks French Roast K-Cup, and a reusable coffee pod filled with the same Starbucks French Roast coffee, the cost difference is dramatic: for the K-Cup the cost is $0.67/cup (bought in a 54-pack); for the refillable pod the cost is $0.26/cup (bought in a 40 oz. package). Over the course of a year of drinking just one cup per day that would add up to a cost difference of $149.65 per person per year. Double that if you have two cups per day. If you are trying to limit your budget money for a department or for your college expenses, that can be a large expenditure. And it begs the question of why all of us aren’t opting for reusable pods as a cost saving measure that still allows us to brew a quick fresh cup of coffee.
As for Keurig, it has promised to introduce a greener alternative to the current K-Cups by 2020. However, with the rate we are going, by 2020 our world will have approximately 78 billion MORE trashed K-Cups. Critics question Keurig’s ability to produce a fully recyclable product when the current version is made of 4 different layers of plastic, a filter, grounds, and the aluminum lid: the pod will never be fully recyclable. Supporters of the Keurig machine have argued that the machine is environmentally friendly because it saves electricity by not constantly keeping a pot warm like typical machines. This argues for using the refillable/reusable coffee pods (they even make mini filters that are easy to lift out and compost).
Earlier this year, a YouTube video called “Kill the K-Cup” went viral. The video is a high production value dramatization of K-Cups destroying the world, Avengers-style, through mass consumption. The video ends with the slogan “Kill the K-Cup before the K-Cup kills the planet”. The CEO of Egg Studios, the company that released the video, said, “If you ever find yourself throwing out a K-Cup, and then you remember that 13 billion went into landfills last year, do you feel okay contributing to that?”. This video is linked on this page. This is one form of social media activism that may have a measurable impact. The popularity of the “Kill the K-Cup” video and the twitter handle, #killthekcup, and the response to it have been noticed by Keurig.
In the meantime, run to stores to buy a refillable coffee pod and filters and embrace a cup of your favorite joe without the high pricetag.
-Kisha Patel with Shannon Spencer