By: K.L. Medley
A recent internet sensation has brought light to a growing environmental issue: pod coffee is killing the planet. The buzz started earlier this year, with yet another viral video released back in January by Egg Studios, this one highlighting the environmental impact of the Keurig Cup. Some critics say the video, Kill the K – Cup, exaggerates the issue, but according to an NPR article that same month, the issue is bad enough on its own.
Statistics, published this March in The Atlantic, suggest that 1 out of 3 households use pod coffee makers, and K – Cup sales have risen so much recently that the used cups from 2014 alone would encircle the globe more than ten times. With the rise in popularity of Keurig coffee makers, one could normally assume that at least some customers would be recycling the waste, but the problem with K – Cups is that they are not recyclable. The environmental impact is further compounded once the used coffee grounds are also considered; K – Cups are non-biodegradable, and cannot be composted. All in all, it becomes a threefold problem of too many pods, too much plastic, and too little salvage.
The problematic boom in popularity of these wasteful little cups may not be fully reversible, but a statement from the inventor of the Keurig cup to The Atlantic, about his creation, “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it” may at least put a damper on their growing use. As an alternative, older models of the Keurig offer a reusable filter, and Sustainableamerica.org reported in March of 2014 that the popular brand, EkoBrew, offers reusable filters compatible with some models of the Keurig for under $17. While reusable filters may reduce the mounting heaps of used K – Cups that are accumulating, it does not eliminate the problem entirely, nor does it solve the question of what to do with the cups that have already piled up.
While a select few regions possess the capability to break down the #7 plastic out of which the pods are made, most areas do not offer recycling programs for this specific grade of plastic. Sustainableamerica.org also points out several popular brands, like Dean’s Beans and Crazy Cups, as offering #5 plastic cups that are compatible with Keurig machines, and Keurig itself published plans, to follow suite, on their own website, stating their desire and commitment in switching from #7 to the more recyclable #5 plastic by 2020. It is, however, important to note that many of the #5 plastic pods on the market today must still be disassembled into their individual components in order to be recyclable. Even if the same consumers who are seeking the convenience of pod coffee could be convinced to then turn around and go to the inconvenience of disassembling the pods, The Atlantic points out that these pods are still so small that they tend to fall through the machinery grates at recycling plants.
All of the little plastic K – Cups that fail to be dismantled also trap away something else, something generations of gardeners hold dear: rich fertilizer. Coffee grounds have been used for generations to enrich compost and nourish plants. When considering not only the environmental impact of the K – Cup litter itself, but also the loss of natural fertilizer due to encapsulation, the overall negative impact of Keurig Cups broadens to an alarming scope. Sustainableamerica.org suggests brands such as One Cup, OneCoffee, Club Coffee, and New Hampshire Coffee that offer biodegradable options ranging from 97% to 100% compostability. These pods should break down naturally, exposing the coffee grounds as compost in the process.
While Keurig is still a ways off on making recyclable cups, it is safe to assume it will be even longer until it tackles the biodegradability issue. In the meantime, the safest way to use K – Cups seems simply to be not using them at all. Reusable filters produced by Keurig and other companies solve the problem for certain models; still for others, taking the “K” out of the cup, and switching to a brand that offers a compostable option seems to provide the next best answer to the giant problem of these tiny cups.