As Single-Serve Coffee Use Soars, Industry Struggles with Recycling Solutions

by | Jun 5, 2013

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More than a tenth of US households — 12 percent — own single-cup coffee brewers, says the National Coffee Association, and that number is on the rise. But one-cup coffee pods are not easily recyclable, and the coffee industry is looking for more sustainable options, writes Waste & Recycling News.

Single-cup brewers are a growing trend among consumers. While just 12% of US households own single-cup brewers — up from just 3% in 2007 — 36% of those say they acquired it in the past six months.

Keurig, a wholly owned subsidiary of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, is the largest manufacturer of single-serve coffee pods and is fully aware of the issues surrounding the recycling challenges of its pods, or K-cups. However, the company says it conducted a life cycle analysis to learn more about the environmental impact of its products, and found that “the disposal of a product’s packaging represents a fraction of the total environmental impact.” Significant impacts occur in the cultivation of coffee beans, use of brewing systems, and material used in the products’ packaging, and the company is continuously working to reduce its environmental footprint, the Keurig website says.

But the manufacturing requirements of the K-Cup pack currently make recycling difficult, according to Keurig. The website explains: “The K-Cup pack is made up of three main elements: the cup itself, a filter and an aluminum foil top. The pack’s components prevent oxygen, light and moisture from degrading the coffee. Without the barrier the packaging materials provide, we could not maintain quality or freshness.”

The company says it has introduced a number of sustainability initiatives designed to reduce its environmental impact, including nested packaging for its K-Cup packs, which they estimate will reduce distribution-related greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20%, and decrease volume of packaging by 30%.

Cafection, a manufacturer of ground and whole bean single cup coffee brewer equipment, says it offers a more environmentally friendly single-serve coffee pod. Products use paper fil­ters, which are biodegrad­able, and they do not use plastic discs.

The hybrid packaging of coffee pods — which usually include both plastic and aluminum — makes it difficult for traditional recycling companies to handle, says Albe Zakes, global vice president of public relations at the recycling company TerraCycle.

TerraCycle has worked with a variety of coffee manufacturers to create take-back programs and handle the recycling of used pods, diverting millions of them from landfills.

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