Environmentalists agog as Keurig introduces “recyclable” K-Cup

used coffee pods
Screen capture YouTube

Coffee pod recycling is one of those concepts that is difficult to wrap one’s brain around. Here is a product that panders to our laziest instincts, where people are willing to pay a significant premium to get second-rate coffee because they cannot be bothered to do the minor bit of work required to grind some beans and use a french press or some other easy method of making coffee. The pod is a complex bit of engineering involving three different materials (plastic, aluminum and coffee) that if anyone gave a second's worth of thought to, they would realize this is a ridiculous waste of materials and money, a design for unsustainability. Yet people feel better if companies say nice things about recycling. I have called it “ the worst kind of phoney feel-good environmental marketing, designed for the sole purpose of assuaging the guilt about consuming overpriced and unnecessary crap.”

Now Keurig has announced that it is producing “recyclable” pods, where they have changed the plastic from whatever it was to polypropylene, which, according to the New York Times, “can be sorted and shredded by middlemen and sold to manufacturers that use recycled plastic.” But as David Gelles notes in the Times,

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.

What does “recyclable” actually mean? Generally it means that some poor schlepper has to separate the aluminum foil lid from the plastic bottom and scrape out the coffee grounds so that the materials can be reprocessed. The owner of the machine, who bought it for the convenience, is not likely to do it and get grounds under their fingernails. Seriously, if people don’t care enough to make coffee, they are going to care enough to go through that? So they get thrown out.

The municipality that picks up the garbage isn’t likely to do it, it’s too much work. In fact, in Toronto where I live, which has a very sophisticated recycling regime, the Waste Wizard says that “Tassimo coffee pod, Keurig coffee pod, Nespresso coffee pod” all go in the garbage, not the recycling.

So the only way it can work is if a totally separate waste stream is set up to handle pods. Nespresso has tried to do that in Europe, and Illy has tried in North America, working with Terracycle. But that is a lot of work, and probably consumes more energy and creates more carbon than it is worth.

But the companies do it anyway and call themselves green.

At the Green Living show in Toronto I met a company called gojava.ca that will sell you pods and then come and pick them up in a big white SUV. (At least my green coffee service uses a cargo bike!) They then send it to a “specialty recycler” that grinds down the pods and separates the plastic, which is then turned into the only product that this kind of waste is good for- plastic lumber. What happens when you through polypropylene into this mix?

And who will recycle these new PP Pods?, it’s not easy. First they will have to be separated from all the others. And according to an overview of polypropylene recycling, “right now, polypropylene is one of the least recycled consumer plastics, “at a rate below 1% for post consumer plastics, mainly because of the difficulties of decontamination and removing odor and taint.”

The few places that try to do it use an expensive process that involves “melting PP in nearly 250 Celsius (500 degrees Fahrenheit) to get rid of contaminant molecules. The second and last step involves removing residual molecules during under vacuum and solidification at about 140 Celsius (280 Fahrenheit). The products made following this process can be blended with virgin PP at a rate up-to 50%.” The only reason they do it is to increase the rate of recycling and “get rid of dangerous impact improper disposal of Polypropylene.”

The Keurig website has extensive coverage of this subject, including the problems of finding and separating the pods, noting that "The current recycling industry infrastructure was established to collect plastic (PET) bottles and aluminum cans primarily, and adapting that infrastructure to handle new package formats will take time. "

Back in the New York Times, we learn that Keuring has a chief sustainability officer, Monique Oxender. She says that “When you look at the trends toward single-serve generally, you can either villainize it, or you can fix it. We’re trying to fix it.”

But some things cannot be fixed. The real way to fix the coffee pod is to just stop using them. As Darby Hoover of the NRDC told the Times, making coffee isn’t exactly rocket science and there are lots of alternatives that don’t involve 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.”

Tags: Coffee | Recycling

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