Keurig Tells People to Recycle Their Coffee Pods; City Says Don't

A three-tiered circular rack holding a variety of coffee pods

 Sergi Alexander / Getty Images

Let's be serious, this is a product designed for convenience, and taking these apart is anything but.

Keurig, the pod people we love to hate on TreeHugger, has changed the plastic that their pods are made of to polypropylene, which in some municipalities (like Toronto, Canada) is accepted for recycling as Number 5 plastic. So of course, now they are advertising on their packaging that their pods are recyclable.

There is only one small problem; this is a product that is sold on the basis of convenience. People are willing to spend the equivalent of 40 bucks a pound for coffee because boiling water and measuring out coffee and then cleaning the pot is too much trouble. The pods are complex little assemblies of coffee, plastic, foil and fabric which no recycling system can afford to dismantle. So Keurig expects that their customers, out of an abiding concern for the environment that never seemed to affect them when they bought the pods, will do it for them.

Messy Disassembly

David Rider of the Toronto Star notes that disassembly takes between five and seven steps, which the Financial Post listed as:

The pod comes out of the machine hot. Let it cool. Then, struggle to peel the foil off its top (unlike yogurt tubs, there is no tab on the foil). Toss the foil in the garbage. Scoop the coffee grounds into the compost. Under the grounds a little paper filter is glued to the plastic. Tear that filter off and discard. Rinse excess grounds off the cup. Now, throw the little plastic cups in the recycling (typically blue) bin.
A pile of used coffee grounds next to an opened coffee pod and an unopened one
Lloyd Alter

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Seriously, nobody is going to do this. I am staying at the Opus Hotel in Vancouver with a Keurig in the room and just tried it; I had to poke through the foil, dig all the coffee out to get to the paper filter and then they expect me to wash it?

Pod Problems for Recycling Programs

But hey, putting “it’s recyclable” on the box with that little green symbol might make someone feel better about buying this junk. So in the worst form of feel-good phoney environmental behaviour they will most likely throw it in the blue bin and cause all kinds of problems. The head of Toronto’s recycling program, Jim McKay, tells Rider:

Organic material left in the pod will contaminate other waste in the bin. We’re already having problems with mixed paper and this could make more of it not sellable. We simply cannot afford to take the risk of further increasing the contamination,” McKay said, adding audits of Toronto blue-bin waste found 97 percent of pods still contained coffee grounds.

But even if it is recyclable, it doesn’t mean that it gets recycled; the world is awash in plastics right now that recycling programs cannot get rid of since the Chinese shut the door on dirty plastics. And it changes none of the other factors, including the footprint of making the plastics and the pods and the aluminum foil in the first place, and the ridiculous cost per cup.

The coffee pod represents the ultimate triumph of convenience over sensibility. Recycling them is a feel-good sham. As far as Toronto is concerned, they should tell Keurig to get out of town.