A few years ago, I was waiting in line at a Whole Foods coffee bar. A woman asked the barista, “What do you recommend for a Keurig?”
The resulting pause was too long; I couldn’t resist.
“A sledgehammer,” I piped up. (*)
Snarky advice and fantasies aside, I do not encourage the wanton destruction of single-serve machines. However, I have long been disgusted with the amount of waste generated by their disposable capsules. They encase perfectly compostable coffee grounds in a plastic pod. The unit is non-recyclable due to the organic waste inside, and even if cleaned, is too small to be accepted by many recyclers. So they go to a landfill, where the coffee grounds decompose into greenhouse gases, and the plastic just sits there forever.
How many pods are discarded each year? According to the New York Times, in 2015 Keurig alone sold over nine billion single-serve capsules. That’s over 24 million used per day. How many are recycled? Very few.
As a coffee snob myself, I’d be the last person to advise you to give up the habit. (And my fellow runners would laugh in my face.) But I sure as heck would prefer my fellow caffeine addicts indulge in a sustainable manner. Here are some ways to do just that.
Best Option – Avoid the Waste
The best way to manage coffee pod waste is not to use them. Go back to the traditional coffee maker, or put your own ground coffee into the reusable type capsule. Then you can compost the grounds and any paper filters you use. Zero waste!
But let’s say, for whatever reason, that is not a practical option for your home or workplace, and disposable capsules will continue to be used. What can you do to reduce the environmental impact?
Option 2 – Recycle the Capsules
Some strides have been made toward making single-used pods recyclable. Unfortunately, cost and convenience remain challenges.
- In 2011, Keurig created their Grounds to Grow On program, in which you can order a box, fill it with their used pods, and ship it back to them. The spent coffee grounds are composted. At first, the plastic pods were incinerated in a waste-to-energy plant, but now, according to their website, they are recycled instead. The boxes are not cheap – a box that holds 450 K-Cups costs $120 – which works out to about 27 cents to recycle one pod.
- TerraCycle, a company that specializes in recycling hard-to-recycle items, has a Zero Waste Box that will accept any type of single-use pod. A Medium box (capacity about 400 capsules) costs $145.00, return shipping included.
- The Recycle-a-Cup cutting tool provides a method for separating the capsule into its component parts. You then compost the grounds, and put the aluminum and plastic in with your recycling. And in case your recycler won’t accept the small plastic cups, you can ship them to the Medelco company, which makes the cutting tool. You’ll have to provide the box and pay the shipping, but it may be less costly than going with the options above. And you’ll need to cut the pod open and separate the pieces instead of just tossing the whole thing into the box.
Don’t have the time or budget for those options? Hold on – the product below may just be the future of all such pods!
Option 3 (NEW) – Compost Whole Capsules!
San Francisco Bay Coffee Roasters has introduced a line of single-use capsules that are certified compostable. This means the entire pod can be composted. All the parts – cup, filter, lid – are made from plant-based materials.
At present they are suitable for composting at a commercial facility, and not a home compost bin, which doesn’t reach high enough temperatures to break everything down. But a company representative says they are “working hard” at creating a version suitable for home composting. So for now, if you go with this brand, look for a commercial composting facility in your area and ask if they’ll accept the pods.
So while I still cannot recommend disposable single-use capsules, at least there are some options out there for making them if not eco-friendly, at least less eco-hostile!
For more ways to make your coffee habit sustainable, check out this article on JavaPresse. (Note that their top method is to avoid single serve cups.)
(*) Little did I know that in 2017, a number of Sean Hannity fans would indeed smash their machines after the makers of the Keurig pulled their advertising from his show. (They kissed and made up later.)
2 thoughts on “Single-Use Coffee Pods Just Got Less Evil”
San Fransico Bay Coffee and Costco were sued for “greenwashing” making false claims about the recyclability of their coffee pods.
Kirsten, thanks for that information! This is Jeff, the HPR owner. For some reason my comment shows up under my personal blog ID.
Yes, the term “biodegradable” with regard to products like this is confusing. I’ve had to explain to many people that biodegradable is not the same as compostable, and that breaking down in a landfill doesn’t add any value.
I just checked the SF Bay Coffee website (https://sfbaycoffee.com/) and they have removed references to biodegradable. They are BPI compostable, and my commercial composting facility confirmed that they take them. So I’d still consider them a good option so long as they end up going to a commercial facility or to a program like TerraCycle.