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Little Coffee Pods Pose Giant Waste and Recycling Problems

Words by Leon Kaye

As the consumption of coffee pods surges in the U.S., so do the questions about their disposal and recycling. Although using a pod to make a cup of joe takes about the same amount of time as it does to fire up some water and then make a French press of coffee, the popularity of the single-serve coffee pod machines has taken off.

For now, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters-owned Keurig has taken the lead in the coffee pod market share race, but Nestlé’s Nespresso and Starbucks’ Verismo also fare well among java fans. All of the coffee pod machine manufacturers use flowery language on their sustainability pages to describe how they are working to make the pods’ disposal and recycling more “sustainable.” The fact is, however, that there is no differentiation in what happens to these pods after use; all of them are creating more waste.

When it comes to its products’ impact, Keurig is upfront when the company states “the manufacturing requirements of the K-Cup pack currently make recycling difficult.” The company ran life cycle analyses to gauge the environmental impact of the company’s K-Cup and Vue pods: not surprisingly, the company’s own studies found the products’ packaging “represents a fraction of the total environmental impact.” Whether the plastic in Keurig’s pods can be recycled is a crapshoot and varies by community: and of course, the coffee grounds would have to be extracted (and, in another step, composted) if pods were to avoid ending up in landfill.

Nespresso’s sustainability site is borderline vapid, proclaiming that everything responsibly possible has been done “from the cherry to the cup.” The company’s “Ecolaboration” United Kingdom site lists four locations in London (three of them at Selfridges, one at a Nespresso “boutique”) where consumers can drop off their used pods, as if most Brits could be bothered tucking them in a purse or rucksack as they take the Tube across town. Like its competitors, Nestlé says when it comes to carbon emissions and sustainability, it is “committed,” which is also the word I would use to describe anyone who thinks these coffee pods are a great idea in the first place. On the company’s U.S. site, there is no mention of anything remotely smacking of sustainability at all, but plenty of marketing MBA gibberish about “innovation” and “the ultimate coffee experience.”

Finally, we have Starbucks’ Verismo. While these machines’ long-term success is yet to be determined, the company has succeeded in inspiring the best Saturday Night Live advertisement spoof in years. When it comes to its pods’ disposal, Starbucks also passes the buck, answering FAQs with mostly a “maybe.” When it comes to the machines’ eventual fate, the company is a little more informative, though based on how the page was edited, not much thought was given to addressing questions related to sustainability:

In “name country here,” Starbucks has contracted with the following organizations to facilitate the compliance with WEEE regulations, and to enable our customers to appropriately dispose of and recycle their electrical brewing equipment - Starbucks Verismo Recycling FAQ Page

Some companies claim they are going the extra mile when it comes to their pods. Illy has a “Renew” program that involves consumers shipping the used pods to TerraCycle, which downcycles them into building materials. A Treehugger writer mocked the idea for the ridiculous process involving shipping plastic and coffee grounds across the country. And Canterbury Coffee, Canada’s second largest coffee chain, claims it has a biodegradable coffee pod in the pipeline.

Nevertheless, billions of pods are ending up in landfills because of the notion that making a pot of coffee is inconvenient and wasteful. The same consumers who fall for the quick coffee pod are the same ones who will not be bothered to drop off used ones at a store nor will they drop them off in the mail. And so we are stuck trying to find answers to one of the most wasteful products to hit the market since bottled water.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

[Image credit: Starbucks]

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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