Consumers continue to be crazy for Keurig coffee systems. Check out any department store this season and you’ll find stacks of Keurig coffee makers encased by walls of boxes packed with those little plastic cups filled with coffee in endless flavors.
Chocolate Glazed Donut, Cinnamon Roll, Hazelnut, Mudslide, Caramel Vanilla Cream, Mocha Nut Fudge and Wild Mountain Blueberry. The Keurig-ready coffees by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Gloria Jeans, Timothy’s Brooklyn Beans and Caribou are a mouth-watering indulgence (if you like the Keurig brews; not everyone does).
But the fun doesn’t end there. Keurig brewers push out hot teas, like Celestial Season’s Mandarin Orange and Twinings’ African Rooibos Red, as well as a toasty, roasty line up of lattes and cocoas — all conveniently packed in those little “K-cups” that allow Keurig users to make a single, no-muss serving. The Keurig system does away with tedious coffee brewing, spilled grounds and the strain of lifting cups of water with teabags into the microwave. You just pop the “K-cup” into the brewer and afterward toss it into the recyl….ah, the trash.
Most K-cups go straight into the trash, because their plastic-foil-paper combination renders them unfit for recycling. And that’s where the Keurig loses its awesomeness for eco-conscious consumers. For them, the environmental price of this particular indulgence is too high. There are a few solutions.
Keurig now offers two exceptions to the convenience=plastic trash cycle it initiated: Its Vue system uses recyclable K-cups made with #5 plastic. Even better, its “My K-cup,” is a reusable brewing container. Most Keurig brewers, however, still use the non-recyclable K-cups, and even though they’re small, they’re adding up. Originally developed (in 1998) for hotels and businesses that wanted to offer customers a self-serve, single cup of joe, the Keurig systems are now wildly popular with individuals. Parent company Green Mountain Coffee Roasters reported $2.5 billion in sales in 2011. Together, businesses and households have used some 9 billion of these little forever K-cups, according to The Wall Street Journal by way of the NRDC (hey, it’s the Internet who can source anything these days).
That’s 9 billion tossed K-cups, give or take.
Just a third of that many cups, or about what the company was projected to sell just last year, could more than circle the Earth, according to the Dear Coffee I Love You blog, which does not love the Keurig and offered a multi-pronged evisceration of it in a lengthy 2011 post that criticized Keurig’s mediocre brewing methods and its plastic waste stream: “Plastic that will take millions of years to degrade—if ever— and will continue to pile up in landfills and the ocean, increasing the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and killing wildlife. All in the name of low-quality convenience.”
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters has assured the public that it’s working on this green mountain of a problem. Company spokespeople have tried to calm concerns by pointing out that the Keurig system stops people from making too much coffee and wasting it. Of course, any single-cup coffee maker on the market also can do that, without generating affiliated plastic waste. Keurig also reports that it’s compressing its packaging, and its brewers have auto-off features. The company also argues that its packaging issue is just “a fraction of the total environmental impact” of the larger coffee producing/consuming cycle. “Significant impacts occur in the cultivation of coffee beans, use of brewing systems, and material used in the products’ packaging. We take all impacts seriously and are continuously working to reduce our environmental footprint.
That’s all good, but it’s also standard stuff. The K-cups are still spewing.
This K-waste isn’t the biggest problem facing planet Earth, O-K. But it is emblematic of a retail/consumer mindset that generates stuff first, and figures out what happens to the leftovers later.
So if you’ve already got a Keurig, or you were given one as a present, or you’re contemplating buying one, here are a few eco-friendly options for various situations.
I already own a Keurig and regret its environmental impact:
A — Get the reusable K-cup called the My K-cup reusable filter. It will work in these models: Keurig home brewers B40 Elite, B50 Ultra, and B60 Special Edition.
This has been out for a while and you can read the mixed reviews of 1,300 customers at Amazon. Some people adore this option because they can use their own coffee, which they like better anyway. Others complain that their Keurig brewer fights them, splashing coffee when they use My K-cup. Still others have become hooked on the dramatically lower price of making single cups of coffee using their own bulk grounds. (Just like we used to do way back in 2005.)
I must have a Keurig anyway:
If you’re in the market for a Keurig and don’t feel like another brand of single-cup brewer will do the job, consider Keurig’s Vue Brewing systems, which use recyclable #5 plastic coffee K-cups. The foil top and paper liner can be peeled out of these cups so the plastic can be recycled wherever #5 plastic is accepted, and many municipalities now take this type of plastic along with the nearly always recyclable #1 and #2 plastics.
The Vue system, which promises hotter and stronger coffee, is more expensive than other Keurig models, but offers many size options, another way to reduce waste. (Users give the latest Vue good reviews on Amazon, but buyer beware, K-cups do not fit in this machine.)
I’m sick of the high per cup cost of Keurig coffee:
Keurig ex-pats often talk with pride about how they got off the 60-cent per cup Keurig merry-go-round. Their back-to-basics coffee brewed with paper filters etc. runs a fraction of that, they report. Some have switched to other brands of single-cup coffee makers, which are increasingly refined and economical, like this Hamilton Beach model sold for about $30 on Amazon. It can brew directly into your tall travel or regular mug. It brews hotter than usual, creating some of that Starbuckian magic, but using regular old paper filters with your own choice of (hopefully Fair Trade) coffee.
I’m a picky coffee drinker just looking for a great cup of home brew:
A — Join the coffee lovers who have adopted the Toddy cold coffee brewing system, which produces a smooth, low-acid coffee concentrate that can be used to make single cups of coffee at any time of the day. The concentrate is kept in the fridge. This “Americano” style coffee method uses even fewer filters than almost any system (French press excepted) because its filters are reusable for several batches.
B — Become a true java snob by following coffee connoisseurs who use the French Press, which is like the antithesis of the Keurig. It’s messy, grind-specific and requires careful clean up. But it can produce a truly gourmet experience, handled correctly. The Bodum press is popular for having perfected the mechanics. This two-cup/one-large mug coffee maker turns out a strong, smooth coffee, partly because the bean oils are not destroyed in the brewing process. The French press: Elegant, simple and with no plastic or even paper waste, just leftover grounds, reusable as compost or food for flowering bushes.