Whatever happened to: coffee pods?

Keurig cups
CC BY 2.0 by Shoshana/Flickr

We love convenience. So what's not to love about coffee pods, that make sort of good cup of coffee with no muss and no fuss? They have taken over Europe and sadly, these alien specimens have crossed the Atlantic and are invading North America. Between 2008 to 2013, sales have grown by 78.6 percent annually in the United States, according to the New York Times.

We’ve been writing about these evil pods since 2007, but it seems like we’re fighting a losing battle. We’ve talked a lot about how un-recyclable these are, how they are what Bill McDonough called "Monstrous hybrids." But if you think about the fact that these coffee containers are made of three different types of material and are stuffed with compostable organic matter, it’s easy to see the environmental impact add up. First, the materials have to be extracted, then put together (how much energy does that use up?!) and finally transported over long distances.

A lot of this is driven by the global increase in coffee demand. It seems that more and more people are craving the stuff, especially in North America and Western Europe, making up 90 percent of the demand for coffee pods. It is also driven by the demand for convenience, no matter what the price. (These things are expensive!)

The problem with them is the waste that mostly goes straight to landfill. Yes, coffee pods are made of recyclable materials (the plastic shell, the paper filter and the aluminum) but recycling plants don’t hire staff to pull these materials apart and put them in the appropriate bins. And while EcoCups use No.6 plastic, other companies like Green Mountain use No. 7, which can’t be recycled in most places. No.7 plastics may also release unwanted toxic chemicals when incinerated.

What’s more, a study showed that the pods are too small to be recycled properly. The East Bay express estimated that they could produce about 966 million pounds of waste per year. If that’s not enough of a visual for you, Mother Jones reported that the amount of coffee cups produced by Green Mountain (8.3 billion) in 2013 was enough to go around the earth 10.5 times – and that’s just one company.

They even have tea pods now. Photo by: Chun Yip So/FLickr/CC BY 2.0

Many coffee pod companies are setting up recycling programs to make us feel better about this issue. In Europe, Nespresso has organized recycling and even art exhibits; In North America, Terracycle is reprocessing Illy pods. We were not impressed, calling it elaborate and expensive greenwashing, creating the “most well-travelled compost in the country.” Terracycle responded in an email to a reader, saying that we shouldn't "blame TerraCycle for 50 years of mass-consumerism, single-serve obsession and disposable demand. If TerraCycle went away today, do you really think less people would buy coffee pods?"

What’s worrisome is that the “recyclable” spiel even tricked the New York Times into believing that these coffee pods are the real green deal. In a recent article, they wrote about the EcoCup, which uses No. 6 plastic and is recyclable in two thirds of municipal systems across the US.

The thing is, we get why people are so attracted to coffee pods. We’re living in a society where everything is fast paced and immediate. Families have different work schedules and don’t want to drink cold or burned coffee. Co-workers have different flavor preferences and rely on coffee to make it through the day. And coffee drips are great for making lots of coffee, but what if you just want one cup? There are other options! French presses come in 1 cup sizes. Yes, they take more time, but it’s only a matter of minutes, and you can fill those minutes by getting other things done, like reading this article. You could also get a reusable single-serve cup, but we’re not convinced this is any more efficient than a drip or press since you still have to take the cup out and wash it – it’s just as much work!

As if the coffee pods weren’t bad enough, companies like Mother Parker are now making tea pods. Because clearly compostable tea bags aren’t fast enough for today’s world. Not to mention that if you do the math coffee and tea pods are much more expensive than making caffeinated drinks the old fashioned way. What’s wrong with a tea strainer or a reusable coffee filter?

Tags: Coffee | Recycling | Tea | Waste

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