New York Times News Service
Keurig Green Mountain last year sold more than 9 billion of its traditional single-serve plastic coffee pods — or K-Cups. Precisely zero could be easily recycled.
This inconvenient fact has provoked a decade of hand-wringing within the company, and discontent among consumers. Placed end to end, the pods sold in a year would circle the globe roughly 10 times. Concerns among environmentalists are mounting, and sales growth is slowing.
Now Keurig says it has found a solution. It is taking longer than it took for NASA to put a man on the moon, but in the coming months, the company will begin to sell K-Cups made of material that is easily recycled.
The new K-Cup, composed of polypropylene, gives Keurig an answer to critics who say the company has shown a flagrant disregard for the planet’s well-being. Like common plastic bottles, the new K-Cups can be sorted and shredded by middlemen and sold to manufacturers that use recycled plastic.
But the new K-Cups are unlikely to put an end to the attacks. Recyclable as they may be, the new cups are not compostable. They are not reusable. And Keurig will still be selling billions of pieces of plastic each year.
To many environmentalists, that makes for a fundamentally irresponsible business model.
“There are a lot of ways to make coffee that don’t use so much packaging,” said Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. “Making coffee wasn’t something that needed to be reinvented.”
Be that as it may, single-serve coffee is immensely popular. And though Keurig’s new K-Cups may not mollify all of its critics, the company says it is trying its best to manage an unsavory situation. “When you look at the trends toward single-serve generally, you can either villainize it, or you can fix it,” said Monique Oxender, Keurig’s chief sustainability officer. “We’re trying to fix it.”
How the K-Cup became ubiquitous is something of a fluke. Company lore has it that in the mid-1990s, when the Keurig founders were looking for a container they could use for the single-serve coffee machine they were designing, they came upon an unlikely candidate: the takeout salad dressing containers from a local restaurant, Ken’s Steakhouse.
Keurig began buying the containers — made from a blend of plastic that is tough to recycle — in bulk, never expecting that it would one day sell billions a year. But because Keurig machines were designed specifically for the pods, changing course soon seemed virtually impossible.
In 2006, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, a Vermont chain that emphasized social responsibility, acquired Keurig. Almost immediately, the environmental implications of the single-serve model were a cause for concern.
“You had two cultures,” Oxender said. “Green Mountain, with its deep roots in sustainability, and Keurig, which was still a startup.”
That was 10 years ago. In the intervening decade, Keurig tried to design various replacements for the traditional K-Cup. But for an ostensibly simple plastic packet, it proved devilishly difficult to redesign. For starters, any reformulated K-Cup would have to have “backward compatibility” — that is, it would need to be the same shape as those it was replacing, so it could work with all the old machines.
Just as important, any new cup would have to have the same properties that made the Ken’s Steakhouse cups so appealing: It needed to have a strong oxygen barrier, be rigid and be easy to puncture yet strong enough to withstand pressure from the machines.
Working with its suppliers, Keurig tried dozens of formulations. Some were good at keeping out oxygen (which spoils ground coffee) but didn’t puncture reliably. Others were easily punctured but weren’t sufficiently rigid. Still others had good rigidity and were easy to pierce, but didn’t accept the welded foil covers that seal the cups.
Keurig even briefly introduced a paper K-Cup intended for tea, but discontinued it because it performed poorly. Reusable K-Cups are also available from Keurig and other manufacturers, but haven’t caught on with convenience-obsessed consumers.
As K-Cup sales increased, consumers and environmental advocates grew more troubled. By 2011, the hashtag #killthekcup was circulating on Twitter. Last year, a special-effects-laden satirical video appeared on YouTube, depicting monsters made of K-Cups overrunning a city. Earlier this year, Hamburg, Germany, banned single-serve coffee pods in government buildings.
Keurig says such protests are misguided. The company claims that while it may generate substantial solid waste, single-serve coffee makers actually use fewer grounds and less water than traditional drip machines and that sending all those K-Cups to landfills isn’t actually all that bad.
Yet Keurig acknowledges that overall, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its coffee system are higher than those from brewing an equivalent amount of coffee the old-fashioned way.
“The production of each one of these coffee pods requires energy, materials, chemicals, water, transportation,” said Hoover of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Recycling helps mitigate the effects of sending them to a landfill, but that does not offset the environmental effects of making them in the first place.”
A few years ago, engineers at Keurig achieved a breakthrough of sorts. By using polypropylene instead of the previous plastic blend, and injection molding instead of thermoforming, they created a K-Cup with all the right features.
Keurig says it will start selling these recyclable K-Cups later this year. The new cups will make up half of its supply by 2018, it says, and all by 2020. But in the end, this may only make a moderate impact: Just because something is recyclable, that doesn’t mean it will actually be recycled.
Moreover, the new K-Cups may be recyclable, but making them will still be terribly energy-intensive. And Keurig will still be producing, selling and shipping out billions of pieces of disposable plastic each year.
Ultimately, the surest way for consumers to make K-Cups more sustainable may be to stop using them.
“Single-serve coffee is a solution to something that wasn’t a problem,” Hoover said. “A French press, for example, is also single-serve, but doesn’t generate so much waste. When there are such clear alternatives, it allows us to re-evaluate the role of packaging in our lives. We can make simple choices that reduce our environmental impact.”