10 billion non-recyclable coffee pods

keurig-k-cups

This post is about coffee.

And, it’s about coffeemakers.

And, it’s about the single-serve coffeemakers and the little non-recyclable pods or cups that go inside them and then are discarded after seconds of use.

In an article by Scott Kirsner in today’s Boston Globe, the subject of the Keurig coffeemaker and their “K-Cups” is discussed.  Green Mountain Coffee owns Keurig (they bought it in 2005 – read about that here).  The article discussed the quandary Green Mountain finds itself in as a ‘responsible’ company with a conscience.  In fact they do work hard on fair trade for the coffee itself.

But the K-cups are another story.  They are made from non-recyclable materials.  And although the cups themselves are small, their numbers are huge.  Last year alone, over 1.6 billion (yes, billion!) cups were used.  My calculations say that this is enough K-cups to circle the earth one and a quarter times. And they all go into landfills after their seconds of use and stay there for hundreds or thousands of years.  And that’s just Keurig.  There is also Tassimo, Senseo, and others.  Further, the forecast for K-cup sales are 3 billion in 2010 and 5 billion in 2011.  So now we are talking about a chain of K-cups from 2009, 2010 and 2011 made up of 9 or 10 billion units and circling the earth eight times!

Here’s Keurig’s environmental statement:


Keurig’s Environmental Statement:

Sharing Our Commitment for a Better Planet

All of us at Keurig are citizens first and employees second! We are committed as a company to responsible business practices that sustain our environment for all.

In fact, our parent company Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc. (GMCR) is a leader in developing Fair Trade/Organic coffee blends that are great for coffee lovers, coffee growers, and our planet. Also GMCR is repeatedly cited for best practices in business ethics.

As such, we’d like to share what we are doing at Keurig and what we are doing in cooperation with GMCR to build a better world for both gourmet coffee lovers…and lovers of best practices in corporate responsibility.

Sustainable Packaging

K-Cup® Portion Pack Packaging is an area of major environmental concern for all consumer product companies. As the single-cup coffee market and our Keurig brewing systems grow in popularity, we understand that the impact of the K-Cup® Portion Pack waste stream is one of our most significant environmental challenges. The K-Cup package is made up of three main elements — the cup itself, a filter and an aluminum foil top. The polyethylene coating of the foil – as well as the process of heat-sealing the various elements – makes recycling difficult.

However, this packaging approach prevents oxygen, light and moisture from degrading the coffee. Without the barrier the packaging materials provide, we could not maintain the quality and freshness of the coffee, which means that all the resources and effort put into growing and roasting great coffee would be wasted. Finding a more environmentally-friendly approach to this packaging challenge is a big priority for us. We are working on a few different fronts to improve the environmental characteristics of the K-Cup® system, as well as to mitigate its impact.

Here’s what we are doing

  • We are actively researching alternatives to the the K-Cup® Portion Pack’s petroleum –based materials
  • We are conducting a Life Cycle Analysis to help us understand the overall environmental impact of the K-Cup® Portion Pack as compared to the use of a typical drip- brewer.There are environmental considerations at every step on the road from “tree to cup”. By studying the K-Cup over its entire life cycle, we can more clearly understand how and where we can reduce its footprint.
  • We are working to identify the right definition of “environmentally friendly” for all our packaging, including the K-Cup Portion Pack. For example it could mean carbon-neutral, made with renewable materials, recyclable, biodegradable, compostable, petroleum-free, all of the above, or something entirely different. We are researching what is possible today and tomorrow, taking into account the current state of packaging technology, consumer preferences, community infrastructure, performance requirements, and the demands of the marketplace.
  • We also continue to offer the My K-Cup, a reusable filter cartridge assembly that can be refilled by the consumer, is easily cleaned, and is compatible with all Keurig home brewers sold today.

For project managers, there are some interesting things to consider (perhaps over a cup of coffee)…

-Note the reference to the Life Cycle Analysis.  This is something we’ll be discussing in detail in our upcoming book. Project Managers can gain from this type of analysis of the project and the product of the project.

-Note the possible number of projects that this has already triggered:

—The Life Cycle Analysis itself

—The development of a recyclable K-cup

—The introduction and advertising and deployment of the “My K-Cup”

This is another good example of how green practices make opportunities for projects and therefore opportunities for PMs to contribute to environmental efforts in a way that pays off not only for the environment but for the PM.

We’ll update you here if we get any update from Green Mountain or Keurig.

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14 Responses to 10 billion non-recyclable coffee pods

  1. Jenn says:

    I received a Keurig as a gift. I absolutely love the coffee it produces. BUT I cringe every time I make a cup because I can just see the landfill piled with these little pods. I had to come up with a way to reuse each of these pods or else not use it. I have decided to use these as seed starter cups for my garden. The will be perfect. I will use the coffee grounds as compost. Since the cups already have the hole punctured. It should be perfect!

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  2. Dave says:

    Hi Jenn,
    Excellent use of the pods. Congratulations!

    EarthPM

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  3. Dorothy says:

    K-cups are phenomenal but the impact on the environment is worrisome. The My K-cup refusable option makes a terrible cup of coffee – at least to those of us that a strong – extra-bold cup of coffee… If the packaging for the k-cups is difficult to change – Isn’t there a better reusable solution that you can come up with – something along the lines of the k-cups themselves – using the same water filtering solution so that the water doesn’t just pass through the center of the pod? I – for one – am seriously thinking of giving up the Keurig because of the environmental issues and I know there are a lot of people out there sharing my concerns….I would love to find a reusable solution that actually made good cup of coffee… but I will go back to a regular coffee maker if I have to….

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  4. Dorothy says:

    K-cups are phenomenal but the impact on the environment is worrisome. The My K-cup reusable option makes a terrible cup of coffee – at least to those of us that like a strong – extra-bold cup of coffee… If the packaging for the k-cups is difficult to change – Isn’t there a better reusable solution that you can come up with – something along the lines of the disposable k-cups themselves – using the same water filtering solution so that the water doesn’t just pass through the center of the my k-cups pod? I – for one – am seriously thinking of giving up the Keurig because of the environmental issues and I know there are a lot of people out there sharing my concerns….I would love to find a reusable solution that actually made good cup of coffee… but I will go back to a regular coffee maker if I have to….

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  5. Jake Samuelson says:

    Jenn – I was thinking about doing the same thing. I wondered if we can talk about how you used the cups for seed starter cups. Let me know if you were willing to compare notes: jacobksamuelson@gmail.com.

    Thanks!

    Jake

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  6. Lauren says:

    That’s why I like my little french press. Just enough for one cup & no waste. Much more affordable, too. I just don’t get the Keurig thing anyway. I used it at a hotel once and it was just bad stuff. Sure it’s cool the first few times b/c you load this pod thing and it punctures it and you don’t have to deal with a wet filter & stuff, but is it REALLY that much of an inconvenience to make coffee?

    What I don’t understand is why they make those silly cups in the first place – those little round coffee pods (like round tea bags) seemed to do the same thing just as well as the cups & you could just toss those in a compost pile.

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  7. 'Becca says:

    I wonder about the health effects of putting hot liquid through/against layers of plastic. Keurig says there’s no BPA in the cups, but there are many other chemicals in plastics that may be just as dangerous or worse; BPA is only the trendy one to worry about at the moment….

    I use a percolator. I love it! Nothing to throw away except the coffee grounds (which can go directly on the soil around most plants and help to control weeds; they’re also great for scrubbing cast-iron pans) and it makes good coffee that is hot enough!

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  8. Wow. 1.6 billion! We blogged about whether a Keurig brewer is green or not (see http://www.greenlivingeco.com/keurig-brewer-green-or-not/), but 1.6 million k-cups in landfills may seal the deal that they are not. We really hope that they find a way to make the k-cups recyclable or compostable.

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  9. earthpm says:

    Thanks, Green Living Eco – note that our post has since been mentioned all over the web. Here’s an example:

    http://www.coffeeamp.com/single-cup-coffee/keurig-k-cups/keurig-k-cups-how-green-is-green-mountain/

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  10. NICK says:

    We humans are stupid, knowing that it takes thousands of years for items to degrade these products and yet still allowing companies such as Keurig to encourage the spread of ‘garbage’ over our finite planet.
    We should outright ban the use of non-recyclable plastics for commercial use and hence force the development of alternatives.
    There are now biodegradable plastics and companies selling items such as coffee pods (and thousands of other plastic products) should be forced to use them or make them usable BEFORE taking them to market and capitalizing on people putting greed and self-satisfaction ahead of our children’s world.

    I love good coffee but not at any (environmental) price. I encourage you and your friends NOT to purchase these machines until they are shown NOT to pollute our environment.

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  11. Eep² says:

    I suggest anyone fed up with this terrible design on Keurig’s part email sara.mahoney@keurig.com (Communications’ Specialist – Corporate Social Responsibility) and give her a piece of your mind (politely). Oh and stop buying the damn things!

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  12. Martin Jukovsky says:

    The Senseo pods are made of paper, like tea bags, and therefore biodegradable. They are a sensible alternative to the eco-nightmare of plastic K-cups.

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  13. earthpm says:

    Martin, Sounds like a great alternative. I will take your word for it about the biodegradable. The story on their website is great. Perhaps I missed it though, they don’t seem to talk about their sustainable packaging. I would think that is a big selling point considering the negative feedback we’ve received about the K-cup’s issues.

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  14. Leena says:

    The production, use and disposal of plastic all leave a trail of toxins, including dioxin, apparently the most toxic chemical known to humans. Our consumption patterns are selfishly out of control – we choose to bash on regardless, oblivious or callous to the wholesale destruction of the biodiversity of the planet, a planet on which we are only one of many millions of species.

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