The single-serving, single-use coffee pod (or K-Cup) is one of the most wasteful consumer innovations to come up since bottled water. If you bother to scoop out each coffee pod, and your local municipality accepts the plastic/foil/maybe paper contraption in their recycling waste stream, they are not so hideous when it comes to final disposal. And true, more companies are rolling out biodegradable or compostable pods, but the reality is that most of this waste ends up in landfill. OfficeMax and TerraCycle, however, have launched a K-Cup recycling program in Canada.
Last week OfficeMax Grand & Toy, a division of Office Depot, announced the first K-Cup recycling program north of the border. As with both coffee companies and retailers, the K-Cup has become a lucrative business; so it behooves them to do something to increase the waste diversion of these pesky coffee pods. The success of this recycling program will rely on a pilot that has launched recently in southern Ontario.
The system will work relatively simply. First, the company orders boxes, available in three different sizes, from TerraCycle. When that box is full, it can be sealed and then shipped back gratis to TerraCycle. TerraCycle in turn will dismantle the K-Cups and churn them into “cool and useful new products.” TerraCycle was not specific about what these products would be, but the odds are that they will become building materials or outdoor furniture. So fine, this is not really recycling, but upcycling (others may sniff and say downcycling). The point is: Pitching those used coffee pods will not be such a wasteful exercise on behalf of office workers who need their morning cup of java.
There is one caveat however: These boxes come with a price. Depending on the size of the box, they will set the office manager’s petty cash fund back anywhere from $53 to $137 (Canadian). True, the cost includes postage and the cost of recycling by TerraCycle. But here is the big question: Will businesses participate in such a forward-thinking initiative if there is cost involved?
This leads to the uncomfortable question: If the coffee companies and retailers are benefiting from the profits they made from selling these K-Cups, Nespresso pods, Verismo pods, etc., should these companies be responsible for managing the resulting waste? After all, extended producer liability has become a hotter topic in recent years as municipalities struggle with more garbage and reduced landfill space. More industries, from carpeting to electronics, have taken on this challenge — and the results make it clear recycling rates can improve, while boosting the “sustainability credentials” of these firms as well. Others may ask the fair question if consumers should foot the bill for all this waste.
In the meantime, watch for most of these K-Cups and their cousins to find their way into the trash. The first major coffee pod retailer who takes a more holistic approach to composting and recycling their product, at no cost to businesses or consumers, will no doubt see their business spike.
Image credit: OfficeMax Canada
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.