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Opinion: Keurig needs to brew up solutions for wasteful K-cups

February 9, 2014

gordon.847@osu.edu
Garbage at the American Avenue Landfill, owned and operated by the County of Fresno, Calif. Keurig recently launched a ‘Grounds to Grow On’ program which turns used K-cups into a useable alternative and ‘Vue,’ a new brewing system aimed at reducing landfill waste.

Garbage at the American Avenue Landfill, owned and operated by the County of Fresno, Calif. Keurig recently launched a ‘Grounds to Grow On’ program which turns used K-cups into a useable alternative and ‘Vue,’ a new brewing system aimed at reducing landfill waste. Credit: Courtesy of MCT

We’ve all felt it — that sudden, overwhelming panic, that barrage of pins-and-needles through the skin. It’s 8:01 a.m. You’re late. With the speed and purpose of a drone, you sweep through your bedroom, fumbling manically with coat and keys, backpack and books. Yet even in this helter-skelter state, you manage to click on your Keurig: your heaven-sent hazelnut coffee, your beacon in the night. These compact, single-cup coffee brewers are a staple for countless students, myself included. And yet as I sip, I can’t help but feel a certain tinge of guilt: For with each beverage consumed, so too is one K-cup disposed of, left to fester in a landfill.

The solution seems simple, right? Recycle. And yet to separate the constituent parts of a K-cup — the aluminum top, inner-filter, coffee grounds, and plastic cup — is to invest as much time and energy as would have been spent simply brewing a pot. According to a Keurig representative, this multi-dimensional structure is neither recyclable nor compostable, but is necessary to “maintain coffee freshness.” Yet even so, you can’t help but wonder: Should we really sacrifice sustainability for the sake of freshness and convenience?

“Keurig is currently engaged and aggressively investing in Research & Development to find alternate materials that will be recyclable and/or bio-degradable,” a Keurig spokesperson said in an email Tuesday.

That said, the company’s new “Grounds to Grow On” program turns your K-cup into a useable alternative — for a price. To purchase a Keurig recovery bin, which is essentially a glorified box, you must first pay $50 to $100, depending on the size of the bin you want. They then send you the bins (which you fill with used K-cups and eventually ship back), and abracadabra: your conscience cleared, your guilt absolved, your K-cups recycled. To me, this seems like a glaring inefficiency, like a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. You not only drain your pockets of much-needed cash, but also waste energy and fuel in the sheer transportation of the bins.

In another attempt to curb its waste, Keurig has introduced the Vue — a new brewing system with easy-to-separate, “recyclable” cups. But here’s the issue: While yes, you can now separate the Vue cup’s constituent parts, the recyclability of these parts depends on your location. Columbus, for example, is among 47 percent of American communities able to recycle No. 5 (polypropylene) plastic, the Vue cup’s main ingredient, according to the Keurig representative.

And although Keurig offers a reusable filter, which both eliminates the waste of a K-cup and allows you to hand-select your own coffee, sales of this device pale in comparison to those of single-use K-cups. Green Mountain Coffee (the owner of Keurig) does not disclose the number of K-cups sold per year, though according to The New York Times, the average of six Wall Street analysts stands at 6.9 billion.

In addressing these concerns, a Keurig representative cited Green Mountain Coffee as “ranked No. 1 on the Business Ethics list … two years in a row” for its investment in fair trade coffee. Additionally, the company’s website outlines a number of initiatives designed to decrease waste and minimize impact.

Yet here’s where I struggle: Given the sheer size of the Keurig brand, its waste and impact will always makes a big splash, despite efforts to reduce and minimize. As I see it, these efforts simply mask and perpetuate a greater problem, which is the shortsighted behavior of you and I, the consumer: We continue to buy and take and discard — to enable these companies — even with the knowledge that our habits are unsustainable. Americans will not simply cut caffeine from their routines, let alone swear off the ever-convenient Keurig. We can, however, reduce our intake and pressure companies like Green Mountain Coffee to redesign their products in an effectively sustainable way. We must demand actual change, not initiatives like “Vue” or “Grounds to Grow On,” which operate under the guise of “sustainability” but are in reality inefficient and unrealistic.


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  1. Joe says:

    Your opinion piece is harshly worded. Instead of blaming keurig for using materials that have been industry standards for many, many products for a number of decades, you should be blaming the local recycling centers that don’t accept number 5 or number 7 plastics. Recycling technology has been stagnant for years, and so has the infrastructure for recycling centers. Lobby our government for better and more efficient recycling programs with additional funding. The simple fact is that most citizens are ignorant of what’s considered recyclable in their respective communities. Most citizens have no concept of how difficult and expensive and limited recycling capabilities are.

  2. Jan says:

    I enjoy shopping for good coffee brands. I also own a Kuerig. I imidiately a metal filter inserts because I don’t trust the way the coffee is ground or stored in the K-cups. I want the coffee grounds on my own terms not some factory processing out a bunch of plastic trash! It would be great that coffee companies resist making K-cups but not sure that will happen as people unfortunatley like the K-cup conveniance. I tell you the metal filter insert is quite easy to use! Fill it up and put it in, its just one extra step! Honestly though I like the Kuerig style makers I now wonder if other traditional style scaled down brewers are a better idea especially if they maybe are better at heating the water than the Kcup type makers. I don’t know how long the Kuerig will last, the heating element probably will burn out after a year. When that happens I will probably investigate a traditional small-brew maker that will brew one or two cups max with possibly even more coffee ground flexibility over even the best K-cup inserts. For now I will use the expensive Kuerig for as long as this appliance lasts. I hear they don’t last long for something that costs around $100!

  3. Jan says:

    I want to agree with Joe regarding recycling standards. There is a use for plastics in our world. Many of our great apliances and vehicles have performance abilities that aren’t possible without plastic! Why not extend plastic recylcing avenew? People truly want to recycle if they can! I can see a Kcup being melted down into raw material for an airplane stabiliser without the manufacturer requiring new hyrdrocarbon resorces! It only makes sense! I’m an conservitive independant who promotes common-sense environmentalism. Simply put the trash we produce everyday in our lives is horrible and not needed. Does that mean we need to get rid of all plastic? No, I think we should go back to cardboard packaging where possible, plastic blister-packs are redilucous! You can protect items with waterproofed cardboards sealed with natural sealants and also use cardboard cusioning inside the packaging. However if we can recylce plastic packaging as much as possible I’m not against things like Kcups, I just prefer to add my own coffee than use the Kcups.

  4. 4oclock guy says:

    Note that the whole argument over recycling is over the value of time and the immediate cost of ‘being green’. If it becomes economically beneficial, behavior of both producer and consumer will change. Who should bear the expense? Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Michael Jackson’s estate, your social security check, future generations? Someone will pay now or later.
    P.S. The rules may have changed, but I believe the preposition ‘for’ should be followed with ‘you and me’ and you or your editor need better grammar checkers.

  5. Boxhawk says:

    I don’t understand why they cannot simply make the whole thing out of paper. Think about the soups at the store where you put in hot water and eat it right out of the paper container. The lid is paper also. It would be a few cents more per package, but I guarantee people will flock to the first person to do this.

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  8. Lori says:

    The “Grounds to Grow On” program is strictly greenwashing that YOU the Keurig consumer pays for. Yes, they compost the grounds but they INCINERATE the plastic components. And you know who probably gets electricity credits while releasing all that CO2 into the environment… you guessed it, Keurig/Green Mountain. Nice way to subsidize their production costs AND harm the environment, consumer!

    Unfortunately, recyclers aren’t in the business of recycling just for the heck of it, or because it’s good for the environment. They are doing it to make money. So if the cost of collecting and/or recycling an item is more than the money received through the sale of the recycled content to an end-user, then recycling isn’t going to happen. Municipalities make the same cost-benefit decision in looking at providing recycling programs to citizens. Sadly – the manufacturer makes the product, then someone else deals with the waste, so there is no incentive for the manufacturer to change the materials they use other than as a cost savings metric. It all comes down to $$. As a consumer, there are a few things you do to impact this situation: 1) stop using the product, 2) seek out products made from recycled content so that you create a demand for recycled materials, 3) lobby your government to share the cost for disposal with the manufacturer and/or incentivize/reward innovation in manufacturing and recycling technology, 4) create a petition that convinces a manufacturer that there is too much negative publicity around continuing to use that material or running that program.

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