The Environmental Impact of K-Cups
In 2017 alone, coffee pods made up a nearly 5 billion dollar industry.
To put it another way, at least 16 million U.S. households currently have a single-serve brewer on their countertop.
And, of course, these machines are useless without the coffee pods, or K-cups, that go in them… and make up a third of all coffee sold.
In fact, if you took the coffee pods that the coffee giant Nespresso produced over the years (nearly 30 billion of them), you could circle the globe over two dozen times!
That’s a lot of pods, a lot of plastic, and a lot of aluminum.
Frankly, it’s a lot of garbage. And on that scale, people have begun to ask, are coffee pods bad for the environment? Because there are a friggin lot of them out there!
That’s what we want to address here. What is the environmental impact of the K-cup?
While coffee pods are typically smaller than the original coffee capsules, the environmental impact is largely the same. This article uses the term “coffee pods” for single-use pods and capsules.
Coffee Pods and K-Cups: The Major Issues
For starters, let’s make one thing clear: we want to be fair about this. And the truth is that coffee pod machines are not entirely negative.
If anything, the machines save electricity and water, and even use less coffee than regular coffee makers.
But are the savings enough to offset that one major issue of coffee pod waste? Saving water, for example, is an important sustainable practice that should not be ignored – but unfortunately often is, in the Western world.
However, this handful of benefits genuinely pales in comparison to the one, major, glaring, behemoth, how-did-you-miss-that issue of the disposable pods themselves.
The Life Cycle of a Coffee Pod
Let’s back up a bit and take a look at the entire life cycle of a coffee pod.
Now, with most other coffee, the life cycle consists of a fairly simple number of steps:
- Grow the coffee cherries
- Harvest and process the beans
- Roast the beans
- Package the roasted coffee
- Purchase, grind, and brew
Once your drink has been made, the leftover grounds and filter can be disposed of or used for composting. Even the paper filter will be broken down and gone within a matter of months. Either way, the rest of the equipment lives to brew another day, with the exception of the packaging bag that the coffee beans came in.
But with coffee pods, the life cycle (1) is a bit more complex. You need more than just the coffee beans and a dependable coffee maker…
You need the pod.
See, the manufacturing of the pod requires things that aren’t present in the classic coffee life cycle. We’re talking things like plastic, aluminium, and paper.
And these materials have to be gathered, processed, and manufactured into the empty pods before being filled with coffee and sealed.
From there, rather than going to a single bag, the coffee is distributed amongst a plethora of plastic/aluminium cups, which are then re-packaged into much larger boxes.
Once packaged, they are placed on pallets and distributed. From there, the pods are purchased, and each pod is then used in a pod-friendly machine to make a single cup of coffee.
Once used, a pod can technically be picked apart and elements can be recycled or composted, but in reality, the work is far too time-consuming, and most pods end up chucked into the garbage.
Biodegradable K-Cups? Recycling? What the Companies Aren’t Saying…
The plain truth that most companies just won’t come out and say, is that most K-cups simply aren’t biodegradable.
Now, this isn’t a universal truth, and we’ll cover some more sustainable, compostable options for pods later in the article, but those are more cutting-edge, modern solutions to the problem.
Right now the reality is that non-compostable plastic pods aren’t being recycled or composted.
Instead, they’re being dumped by the billions into landfills.
That’s right. By the billions, and not just over a long period of time. Keurig Green Mountain, one of the main coffee pod manufacturers, made over 9 billion pods in 2014 alone, and that number has remained up around the 10 billion mark each year since.
And speaking of Keurig Green Mountain, they also claim their pods are BPA-free, but they refuse to share how they make their special blend of plastic! …But more on that later.
How Long Does it Take for a K-Cup To Decompose?
The time it takes for aluminium/plastic coffee pods to break down is very hard to specify, as they’re fairly new to the scene (just a few decades at this point). But one thing is for sure: with a few decades of data to look back on, those coffee pods in the dump haven’t gone anywhere yet.
And considering that certain tougher plastics can take hundreds or even thousands of years to decompose, I don’t think we should cross our fingers and hope they’ll go away in the next few years… or decades… or centuries!
Things get even more complicated with K-cups in particular (manufactured by Keurig Green Mountain), because they are actually made of a unique chemical mixture known as #7 plastic. There are four layers of plastic in the cup, giving it a cutting-edge ability to preserve the freshness of the coffee inside. But it’s that super strength that is making the plastic incredibly difficult to break down.
Are Coffee Pod Materials Harmful to Human Health, As Well?
So we know what K-cups are made of, and saw the basic materials needed to manufacture a coffee pod. But let’s take a closer look at these for a minute and try to answer another line of important questions:
Are K-cups harmful to your body? Are coffee capsules safe to use at all?
Are coffee pods bad for your health?
Let’s take a look.
You don’t have to dig very far to realize that Keurig K-cups are a health risk. But before we even get to the obvious one – heated plastic – let’s pause and talk a little bit about that pesky aluminium top.
Though it tends to be less in the medical limelight than plastic, ingesting food that has come into contact with aluminium comes with its own set of health risks.
Contact with this metal has been linked to things like autism, anxiety, depression, and even Alzheimer’s and autoimmune diseases. That’s strike 1 for K-cup related health risks.
Have you ever popped that plastic capsule into the Keurig and wondered,
“This thing is plastic… everyone says plastic around food is a health risk. But my coffee is touching this stuff! Wait a second… do coffee pods cause cancer?”
If you’ve questioned this, you’re not alone.
It’s no secret that plastics in general are not good for human health (2). And in the case of a coffee pod, you’re not only using a plastic container, you’re heating up that plastic, too!
We’ve all heard of plastic containers leaching chemicals into its contents, right?
Well, guess what happens when you drink the hot water that has shot through the plastic capsule to make your coffee?
BPA is another major issue when it comes to plastic packaging. Well, at least Keurig claims that its pods are BPA-free, but there are two things we’d like to say about that, sir:
- BPA-free plastic doesn’t necessarily equate to “safe (3).”
- Keurig uses a special blend of #7 plastic, a trade secret that they will not disclose to the public.
So, Keurig uses their own plastic, the formula for which they keep to themselves. In addition to the secrecy, reports have come out about possible carcinogens like styreneshowing up in the plastic.
Cancer-causing concerns aside, the risks of heating up plastic and then ingesting the chemicals from it can also put you at risk of things like fertility issues, hormone imbalance, and weight gain.
So BPA-free or not, this stuff does not seem great for your health. Strike 2.
Finally, there’s that age-old bane of all food – mold. You can guard against it, but sooner or later those mold spores are going to find their way in and ruin whatever delectable thing you’re trying to keep out of their musty grasp.
It should come as no surprise that coffee is not immune to their rotten ways.
Now, let’s keep things fair here. This is not just a single-serve coffee machine issue. Any coffee machine that has dark, damp areas that cannot be properly cleaned is a perfect spot for that mold and mildew to grow.
Even algae and biofilms have been found in coffee makers. So that’s gross on top of gross. Strike 3.
Many of these things are difficult to eradicate even with proper cleaning methods, making it something you can’t easily get away from if you want to use a coffee maker.
But knowledge is power, and it certainly serves you well to take the time to at least clean your machine properly… or just get a Chemex or a French press, which will be easier to keep clean!
So, to recap:
- Aluminium: strike 1.
- Plastic: strike 2.
- Mold: strike 3.
- You’re out.
The verdict is in: K-cups are bad for your health.
What About the Financial Cost?
While things like convenience and choices are clearly pros with the single-serve coffee method, the cost is definitely not on that list.
For starters, Keurig coffee makers typically runs well over $50, and often over $100. Okay, that’s pretty high, but once you’ve purchased it you should be good for a while, right? Right?
But what about those coffee pods that are consumed at the rate of one for every single cup of coffee brewed?
Those don’t go away at some point. They’re a crucial part of the system. And if you break it down (or, more accurately, break those pods open) and poured all the coffee grounds together, you’ll find that you’re buying your coffee for a whopping $40 to $50 a pound, even for the classically cheap stuff like Folgers!
Sign me up for that artisan coffee subscription so I can save some money, please! Seriously…
How Did Coffee Pods Become So Popular?
So, If K-cups are expensive, bad for the environment, and even bad for your health, how did these pricey little Earth and body assassins get so popular in the first place?
Well, there are a few answers to that one.
Ease and Speed
This one’s easy. The thing brews coffee in under a minute. How much easier can it get?
You want a cup of coffee? Sixty seconds later you’ve got one. Cleaning the machine (when you remember to) is also as easy as the press of a button.
It truly is a fast coffee.
The plain and simple truth is that if something is marketed well, it will sell well.
And heck, single-serve coffee machines have become a global icon of convenience, choice, and sophistication. And before you roll your eyes at that last one (believe us, we know you want to), they really are touted as a “sophisticated coffee-drinking choice.”
Check out George Clooney marketing these bad boys. Who doesn’t want to be like Clooney? The man brings a splash of schnazzy razzle-dazzle to an expensive, earth-killing health hazard that just makes you want to ignore all the facts and scream, “I’ll take one!”
A Consumerist Society
Finally, one of the greatest factors that is selling these things isn’t just that expert marketing campaign, a Hollywood star, or even the features and benefits. It’s the culture they exist in.
It doesn’t matter where you live, the modern world as a whole has become a consumer’s paradise.
Long gone are the days when you would save up to buy a tool or appliance and then eventually pass it on to your great-grandchildren. Now if you get five years out of something, it’s a success.
For the overwhelming majority of coffee drinkers, the goal is the end product. They don’t care how they got it and they don’t care where it goes, they just want that cup of coffee in their hand… now!
Keurig has done their best to meet that need with a quick, “we’ll get it to you in sixty seconds!”
But even then, how often have you sat there tapping your foot, waiting for a K-cup to finish dripping or even pulled it out from under the spout before it was fully finished?
It’s that impatient, “me first” mentality that has given coffee pods such a leg up over the years.
We know what we want, and we want it now. If we can’t get it now, then the next best thing is a Keurig. Forget the cost. Screw the consequences.
Which Companies Produce the Most Coffee Capsules, and Which Countries Consume the Most Coffee?
The easy winner for that first question is Keurig Green Mountain. Not only do they make the most K-cups (to the tune of 10 billion a year), but they actually make the most coffee, period (4).
However, while Keurig may have dominated the coffee pod market, they haven’t cornered it entirely. Rival Nespresso is another big shot in the “let’s see who can bury the world in plastic first” race. Over the years their pod count has hit the billions as well.
As far as the consumers go, there’s a pretty similar theme out there: coffee keeps the whole world going round. There isn’t one country or area that can say, “we are the coffee drinkers”.
With that said, there are definitely some countries (we’re looking at you, Scandinavians!) where coffee isn’t sipped, it’s guzzled. Here’s a fascinating list and accompanying map of the top coffee-drinking countries in the world (5). Sorry, Americans, despite your love affair with both coffee and yourselves, you don’t even crack the top twenty!
As an interesting side note, K-cups are also actually reducing overall coffee consumption (6) in places like the United States. But again, these facts can be touted as positive moves in a good direction all day long (for example, less coffee is wasted as a result), but at what cost?
If you just saved 15% on car insurance by switching to Geico, but your car just got hit by a train, that’s not so great, right?
The same thing goes for those coffee pods. There are benefits in some areas, but they’re ruining the whole deal in the process.
If you only brew three cups of coffee in a day thanks to your Keurig instead of a full pot of five cups (two of which get dumped down the drain) using a traditional coffee maker, great!
But if those three cups add three coffee pods to the garbage that wouldn’t have been thrown away in the first place, that’s literally over a thousand pods a year! Do the math. This is not a net positive.
The Greater Effect: How Are K-Cups Bad for the Environment?
Now let’s take a closer look at the environmental impact of coffee pods, because the truth is, coffee pods are an environmental disaster unfolding right before eyes.
The environmental impact of K-cups is hard to overstate (although the satirical video below might come close). Let’s start with the obvious ways the Earth takes a hit each time you press that single-serve button.
Again, an obvious, but painfully real one. As we saw earlier, there’s no clear answer to the question of how long it takes for a K-cup to decompose other than the fact that plastic in general can take centuries to break down… or more!
The bleak reality is that the mysterious #7 plastic that makes up the body of such an overwhelming majority of all coffee pods isn’t just “not biodegradable” – it’s not even recyclable in most places yet.
That means that the majority of every K-cup, thrown into the recycling bin or not, is going to end up in a landfill.
The Use of Resources
For something to be sustainable, it needs to have some kind of “reusable” element to it – something that means it isn’t just consuming.
K-cups do the opposite of that. Not only do they sit in landfills, but they begin their life cycles by sucking away useful resources like metals, paper, and plastics that could be put to better use elsewhere.
Now, we’re not talking about this in the sense that you need to choose between a cup of coffee or something else. That would be a horrible choice!
The fact is that without a coffee pod, you can still brew your coffee, just not in sixty seconds. You can even make some pretty incredible, nay, superior coffee with really simple methods that require just a little upfront cost and little-to-no recurring costs, apart from the coffee beans.
So, the reality is that using the resources that go into coffee pods isn’t making that coffee accessible or not accessible, it’s just making it available faster.
Now, is that worth it? We think not…
“Kill the K-Cup” Goes Viral
It wasn’t until just a few short years ago in 2015, that exposure to the increasing levels of unsustainability in regards to K-cups and other coffee pods finally broke through the white noise of everything else.
In January of that year, an initially anonymous video (later claimed to be made by Egg Studios (7)) hit the web, called “Kill the K-Cup”, and was soon accompanied by the popular #KillTheKCup hashtag.
The video was a spoof, so to speak – a sarcastic, satirical take on the dangers of K-cups. But the makers didn’t use that classic approach of getting everyone’s stomachs a-twisting with remorse through a string of guilt-laden facts and sad pictures.
Instead, Egg Studios took a much more attention-grabbing approach.
Filmed in a very Cloverfield-esque fashion, the short, clever video envisions K-cups as invaders of the strangest sort…
If you haven’t seen it before, you can watch the video here.
Pretty great way to draw attention to an issue, right?
I Don’t Care What Green Mountain Says. You Can’t Recycle That Package
So… when the inventor comes out against the invention, you know something is wrong.
John Sylvan spent time in the 90s drinking 30-40 cups of coffee a day, inventing and testing the nefarious machines that he’s come to loathe.
In fact, Sylvan has come out against Keurigs being used in households and disagrees with the concept of Keurig’s mission of a “brewer on every counter and a beverage for every occasion.”
For real. He’s dead set against them. See it for yourself – you can read the interview here (7).
True to the original aim, Sylvan saw the machines as an answer to coffee in the workplace. This would imply a vastly smaller amount of pods being consumed than having one in every home.
Sylvan said they’re just too expensive, one of the reasons he doesn’t even have one himself. But there is more than just cost that’s weighing on his mind.
It was none other than the creator himself who also claimed that the four-layer #7 plastic isn’t something you can just choose to recycle. It’s tough stuff, which is the reason that the coffee tastes so good, but it’s also the reason that recycling it isn’t as simple as other plastics.
All that said, it’s no surprise that Sylvan is against the K-cup concept he created.
So, Can You Really Not Recycle These Things?
Was Sylvan right? Is there really no way to recycle your coffee pods?
The easy answer is no, there isn’t (8).
They really are that difficult to recycle. And we’re not even talking about composting here, just recycling and reusing. #7 plastic is difficult stuff to work with!
So don’t just start sticking them in your recycling bin without doing your research first. You’re not doing anyone any favors.
However, there is a long and complicated, but slightly more hopeful answer that tends to point to the fact that there is at least a limited amount of recycling currently possible.
For starters, try checking if the plastic is okay to add to your local recycling bins.
If you can recycle them, the process is still not as easy as simply tossing them into your recycling bin. First you need to separate the foil top from the plastic and clean them out. It sounds pretty simple, but it can take a bit of work.
Besides, the question that begs to be asked is, who is going to do that on a regular basis?
I thought the idea here was convenience! I mean, the cost is higher, and if the work becomes more intensive as well, then the whole notion of “convenient K-cups” becomes utterly useless.
Rant aside, recycling coffee pods can be difficult.
If you can and are willing to recycle them, though, and want to make the job easier, consider getting a Recycle A Cup (9).
And now for the kicker. (As if we weren’t discouraged enough already).
Even if you take them apart and can recycle them (again, do your research! That #7 plastic is only recyclable in some places like Canada!) there are still reports of sifters failing to catch the tiny plastic cups when they’re processed for recycling!
If, after all of this, you’re still committed both to your coffee pods and to conscious, sustainable living, look into a group like TerraCycle (10) to find a recycling option that helps get those used pods into the right hands.
What Are the Big Companies Doing to Solve the Problem… And Is It Enough?
The big player here, of course, is Keurig Green Mountain.
What are they doing about this environmental crisis? After all, when Green Mountain Coffee Roasters bought the startup Keurig, they were technically a company devoted to sustainability (oh the hypocrisy…).
To be fair, Keurig Green Mountain seems to have been aware of the deep contradiction of a socially responsible business selling coffee pods, but, sadly, they chose to ride the profit wave and “figure out” the problem as they went.
And here we are, two decades later, with an avalanche of profits and nothing else except a mere promise of a solution.
Their current goal is to make 100% of their coffee pods recyclable by 2020 in Canada, a target that you can see on page 6 (11) of their sustainability report for 2017. They appear to be on target, but as is the case with all big companies, it’s best not to get your hopes up for a guilt-free coffee pod experience two short years from now.
For one thing, Keurig is currently pursuing a “recyclable” K-cup, but recyclable does not mean:
- that it will decompose, OR
- that it will even be recycled in the first place!
But the pressure is beginning to mount. For example, videos like “Kill the K-Cups” are most likely responsible for this aggressive short-term view that Keurig is propagating.
They needed a push.
“What’s that? A viral video about how people shouldn’t buy our products? Well, of course, we’ll make it eco-friendly. We were going to all along…” Ch-yeah, okay…
Other companies like Lavazza and Canterbury Coffee have already done a good deal of research and claim to have created biodegradable, or at least partially biodegradable pods, which is technically true. But the fact that something will decompose compared to how long it will take to decompose are two completely separate things.
The truth or partial-truth of all of these statements is something that only time will tell.
What Are Other Countries Doing to Solve the Problem?
So we’ve seen the manufacturer’s behavior and we’ve seen the people’s response, but what are governments around the world doing about this? After all, most progressive, modern governments are concerned with (and involved in) finding a sustainable future.
For starters, Nespresso is working in London, where the government has allowed them to try to do something about the problem (12), by allowing aluminium Nespresso pods to be recycled along with other recycling.
You have to be a Nespresso Club member (signed up to get regular shipments of coffee from the company) and only Nespresso pods are recyclable, so no other pods out there would be eligible.
More impressively, the government in Hamburg has made an attempt to stop the metaphorical carnage of waste by banning coffee pods (13) entirely in all of its government buildings.
That’s right. In a twist of irony that you can only find in real life, a machine whose inventor intended it to be used for workspaces has now been literally banned from the workspaces!
The environmentally-conscious ban extends to more than coffee pods, and includes water and beer bottles, air fresheners, plastic silverware, plates, and more.
Pretty gutsy move, Hamburg. Good on ya.
While there are other examples like these, the vast majority of countries in the world have done very little to proactively address the mounting issue.
Solving the Environmental Impact of K-Cups: Is there an Environmentally Friendly K-Cup Alternative?
The search for environmentally-friendly K-cups is nothing new, but it has finally been gaining traction in recent years. Not just in terms of recyclable pods, either, but compostable single-serve coffee pods too, which are beginning to become more readily available.
Before we look at actual alternatives, though, let’s begin with an easy one: reduce the damage that you’re already creating.
If you’re using a pod machine, start weaning yourself off today! Don’t use as many coffee pods every day, and try to recycle what you can from each K-cup, if possible. Use that annoying recycling process to fuel your drive to find a better solution to the problem!
This reduces waste, and you can still have that K-cup you’re craving.
However, this solution obviously does not help reduce either the cost or the demand for a continual stream of coffee pods in the long term.
So let’s take a look at a couple of alternative methods out there already that can enable us to give up the need for our K-cups.
Alternative #1: Find Better Pods
Do some research and look for more compostable brands. More and more versions are being created all the time.
Environmental Impact and Resources Used
While the resources being used here are still high, the knowledge that they’ll decompose in a reasonable amount of time means you can rest knowing the environment will feel less of a long-term impact from their use.
Taste can be slightly compromised in this case, as you don’t get the preservation of the grounds on the same level as with the #7 plastic.
So don’t purchase too many at once! Try to keep only what you need for the short term on hand so that it’s as fresh as possible.
Cost Per Cup
This option usually means that the cost is going to be as high as your regular K-cups, as you’re still buying your coffee on a “pod per cup” basis.
Alternative #2: Reusable Pods
If you’re feeling guilty and want to do something about it, hands down the best way to reduce the number of pods you use is to drop that number to 1.
Reusable pods are an only slightly more work-intensive option that allows you to refill a reusable pod with coffee.
Environmental Impact and Resources Used
These have a tremendously lower overall impact, as they use less resources and do not get thrown away after each use!
The refillable aspect means you can grind the coffee fresh each time, keeping that pod flavor without the need for the #7 plastic.
Cost Per Cup
Once you’ve purchased a reusable pod your cost per cup drops to the cost of only buying the coffee beans themselves. Nothing more!
A couple of good options for reusable pods include EZ-Cup (18) and EkoBrew (19).
A Final Note On Alternative Options
Remember, these and most other alternatives are not necessarily going to yield the same level of convenience, quality, or ease.
You don’t need an extreme solution, but you do need something that’s an improvement, and that requires a bit of effort, cost, or both. But it’s a small price to pay for the wellbeing of our planet, and ultimately, ourselves.
Coffee Pods… We Say No.
So there you have it: a detailed rundown on the damage that coffee pods are doing to our health, our finances, and our world.
With the popularity of single-brewing systems continuing to skyrocket, it’s a problem that isn’t likely going to go away anytime soon.
But the truth is, you don’t need a pod machine to make some delicious java. In fact, check out this article for a ton of alternative brewing options. There’s bound to be one in there that fits your lifestyle!
The coffee pod issue is something that we need to keep a laser focus on as we collectively work towards a solution. So please consider commenting with your thoughts, and even sharing the post. Knowledge is power!