The popularity of k-cup coffee brewers is making a major impact on the environment

The Crisis

Use pods instead of K-Cups

There are an estimated 10 Billion K-Cup style coffee pods sold every year. Lined up end to end, they could circle the earth 11 times. Even more astounding, these same pods could reach the moon and beyond! Imagine how much space they are taking up in our landfills. Approximately 26 Tons of coffee pods are dumped in landfills each year across the U.S.

Ease of use in a compact format, it is understandable why they are so popular. Consumers have readily adopted this convenient system, which allows them to brew a single cup without wasting countless pots down the drain. According to the National Coffee Association, 12% of American kitchens have a single serve pod coffee brewing machine. This number is on the rise as more variations of hot beverages are being introduced such as tea, cocoa and even food items like hot cereal and soups.

The largest component of the package (the outer pod) is typically made of a #7 blend of plastic resins which includes polystyrene.

Level 7 plastic by recycling standards are one of the nastiest of all plastics. The material is referenced by environmentalists for being notoriously difficult to recycle. Despite its harmful characteristics, polystyrene was an understandable format for product launch due to product performance and protection.

The typical consumer doesn’t understand the demanding technical requirements needed for the pods to perform. Having to withstand high temperatures and have a precise level of rigidity and puncturability are keys to its functionality. Built in moisture and oxygen barriers contribute in saving the integrity of the coffee’s freshness and taste. There are three components to the packaging that include the actual outer pod, an inner filter, as well as a sealed lid. All of the components aid in protecting the integrity of the coffee as well as its brewing performance.

20/20 Vision

Envision a world where convenience single serve items where just as safe for the environment as they are easy to use.

Based on an article in the New York Times on April 8th, 2014, Keurig pledged, “by 2020, all pods used with its machines will be recyclable, and its next generation 2.0 machine will use recyclable pods based on the Vue technology for some of the drinks it makes.” They hope to find a packaging solution that is completely reusable. Unfortunately, this goal means another 6 years of unsalvageable waste.

Is there hope for sooner relief?

Why Wait till 2020?

Exciting in the market now is the introduction of polypropylene plastic being used for the pods. Polypropylene is a recyclable number 5 plastic which makes it easy to recover in the recycling stream.

Not all polypropylenes are created equal. Innovations in polymer science have developed a grade that is puncturable, where before polypropylene would just collapse under the pressure of the brewing needle.

Number 5 plastics are currently accepted through some curbside recycling programs. Level 5 plastics can be recycled into traffic signal lights, battery cables, brooms, brushes, auto battery cases, ice scrapers, landscape borders, bicycle racks, rakes, bins, pallets, and trays; just to name a few.
Its high melting point is suitable for the brewing process.

Current Claims Come with Consequences

There are several companies making claims of having coffee pods that are recyclable today. These developments include filter only solutions with no outside oxygen barrier protection, and reusable coffee pods. These alternatives sacrifice key elements of importance to coffee connoisseurs; taste, freshness, versatility, and convenience.

A recyclable pod filter with no barrier requires additional packaging in order to maintain the proper barriers needed for product protection. This additional packaging will continue to add to the waste stream. In addition, the use of a reusable coffee pods requires that the consumer purchase the traditional large coffee tub or brick. Upon initially opening that container, the freshness is released, never to be regained, sacrificing recyclability for product quality

A Step Closer to a Better Cup of Joe

Developments in level 5 polypropylene as a replacement for polystyrene look promising for solving the environmental problem that the single serve K-cup and similar cups coffee trend has created. Though there are other factors in play, the improvement of one vital portion of the package increases the likelihood that soon, coffee pods will be placed in a recycling bin as opposed to the trash.

Intelligent Blends in partnership with Printpack is leading the way. Several blends of their coffee have been released in Printpack’s Polypropylene k-cup. The response has been overwhelming positive in the industry and by the public.