Keurig Canada Fined $2.3 Million for Misleading Recyclability Claims

The same could probably be said about every product labeled recyclable.

Recycling a Keurig pod
Recycling a Keurig pod.

Lloyd Alter

For years on Treehugger, we have shaken our heads in wonder at the concept of recycling coffee pods. Seriously, how many people who pay four times as much for the convenience of pod coffee are then going to go to the trouble of taking it apart and recycling it? I tried once in a hotel that had a machine in my room and you can see the mess in the photo. I wrote, "The coffee pod represents the ultimate triumph of convenience over sensibility. Recycling them is a feel-good sham."

Now Keurig Canada has settled with the Competition Bureau Canada "to resolve concerns over false or misleading environmental claims made to consumers about the recyclability of its single-use Keurig K-Cup pods." According to Competition Bureau Canada:

Keurig Label

Keurig Canada

"The Bureau’s investigation concluded that Keurig Canada’s claims regarding the recyclability of its single-use coffee pods are false or misleading in areas where they are not accepted for recycling. The Bureau found that, outside the provinces of British Columbia and Quebec, K-Cup pods are currently not widely accepted in municipal recycling programs. The Bureau also concluded that Keurig Canada’s claims about the steps involved to prepare the pods for recycling are false or misleading in certain municipalities. Keurig Canada’s claims give the impression that consumers can prepare the pods for recycling by peeling the lid off and emptying out the coffee grounds, but some local recycling programs require additional steps to recycle the pods."

Keurig was fined $2.3 million (CA$3 million) as a penalty and will donate $632,000 (CA$800,000) to a Canadian charity focused on environmental causes. It also has to publish corrective notices on its website and on social media.

Keurig was also sued in the U.S. for its recyclability claims and settled, but the terms have not been made public; an announcement of it is due in February 2022. The wording of the American lawsuit is interesting, noting that:

"The Products are advertised, marketed and sold as recyclable. However, even if consumers take the many steps required to place the Products in their recycling bins, they are not in fact recyclable because municipal recycling facilities (“MRFs”) are not properly equipped to capture and segregate such small materials, nor can they handle such materials since they are inevitably contaminated with foil and food waste. Furthermore, even to the extent facilities exist that are capable of segregating the Products from the general waste stream, and then cleaning any contamination in the Products, the Products end up in landfills anyway as there is no market to reuse the Products or convert them into a material that can be reused or used in manufacturing or assembling another item."

Keurig pods are now made of polypropylene, labeled #5, which is theoretically recyclable, but only about 3% actually is and you can bet that not much of that is from coffee pods. As this overview of polypropylene recycling notes, the process includes sorting, cleaning, reprocessing by melting at 500 degrees Fahrenheit, a high enough temperature to get rid of contaminants. It's no wonder that nobody bothers.

All the coffee pod companies pretend to recycle. In Europe, Nespresso has elaborate collection and recycling processes, but it takes a lot of energy and effort to run, and nobody can tell you if it is anything more than performative going through the motions. They do it because as sustainability innovator Leyla Acaroglu writes in her article "System Failures: Planned obsolescence and enforced disposability," recycling validates waste.

"The big issue with the trend to ‘make it recyclable’ as a solution to disposability has validated the production of single-use product streams .... The big thing is that it also costs the consumers rather than the producers, and it’s the local governments that have to fit the bill of waste removal and processing."
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U.S. Green Building Council

We have noted before how we can only marvel at how successful industry has been at making the world safe for single-use products, and how people think recycling is the greatest thing they can do for the environment and to live a longer and healthier life. These companies are the convenience industrial complex, where they sell us single-use products and then convince us that recycling makes it all fine, and we are virtuous and wonderful for picking up their garbage. I wrote earlier:

"The problem is that, over the last 60 years, every aspect of our lives has changed because of disposables. We live in a totally linear world where trees and bauxite and petroleum are turned into the paper and aluminum and plastics that are part of everything we touch. It has created this Convenience Industrial Complex. It's structural. It's cultural. Changing it is going to be far more difficult because it permeates every aspect of the economy."

The lesson from the Keuring lawsuits in Canada and the U.S. is that it was all a lie. They are no different from any other company labeling its single-use product as recyclable; everything is, and nothing is.