Waste and the Single (K) Cup

by Sarah Tag for SUST 240

A Keurig coffee brewing machine, in action (photo: R.J. Huneke)

A Keurig coffee brewing machine, in action (R.J. Huneke)

If you are a coffee drinker, you almost certainly know what Keurig machines are: single-serve coffee brewing systems produced for home and commercial use. They function using small, air-tight plastic containers, called K-cups, that are sealed with coffee filters and ground coffee inside. When you want to brew a fresh cup of coffee, you place a K-cup into the brewer, it pierces a hole in the top and bottom, and forces hot water through, which then drains into your coffee cup. Keurig has become a huge success and has transformed the coffee experience for almost a third of Americans, according to a recent article in The Atlantic.

Photo: Global News (Canada)

Photo: Global News (Canada)

So why is it that John Sylvan, creator of the Keurig, doesn’t even own one? In 1997, Sylvan sold his share of the company for $50,000, and now he regrets that just a bit, as it is worth billions now. But that bothers him less than the environmental concerns that they pose. A recent article by James Hamblin in The Atlantic not only states that Sylvan claims they are expensive, but he is also feeling badly about inventing the machine at all. This is because the K-cups have received increasing criticism as being a bane to the Earth since they are not recyclable or biodegradable, and therefore “generate a ton of waste” according to a Boston Globe Magazine article.

In 2012 the patent on the K-cups expired and many off-brand competitors inundated the market, some with biodegradable or reusable versions. This has made it easy for critics to maintain that Keurig doesn’t prioritize sustainability, despite claims on their web page. Keurig’s web page links to their sustainability report in which they pledge to make a fully recyclable K-cup by the year 2020. Sylvan says that this is impossible, though, as “the plastic is a specialized plastic made of four different layers.” Integrated within are a filter, grounds, and a plastic foil top, which makes it extremely difficult to separate the materials for proper recycling.

In 2012, Monique Oxender joined Keurig’s team as their Chief Sustainability Officer. With regard to the K-cup problem she was quoted as saying, “We’re not happy with where we are either. We have to get a solution, and we have to get it in place quickly.” However, she and other proponents point out that single-serve coffee brewers save energy over standard coffee brewers as they do not stay turned on to keep a pot warm. They also extract the grounds more efficiently, which is significant considering that coffee beans are a very water-intensive crop. It should also be noted that in brewing complete pots of coffee, households usually end up tossing 12 to 15 percent of the pot, which represents 25 liters of water, based on Keurig Green Mountain’s calculations.

Keurig has been claiming to be working on their waste issue for five years now. They will need to move more swiftly, though. Though backlash continues, so does the popularity of the product. And as Keurig’s popularity increases, K-cup waste will do the same. 2020 appears to be very far away.

Each week during the Fall 2014 / Spring 2015 semesters, students in Prof. Mike Bryson’s SUST 240 Waste classes at Roosevelt University contribute blog posts on urban and suburban sustainability issues to the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future website.

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About Suburban Sustainability

Founder and editor of the Schaumburg's Sustainability Future social media project (est. Earth Day, 2011)
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