SINGLE-USE COFFEE PODS AN UNNECESSARY INCONVENIENCE
Product is a waste of money, resources, and a huge source of garbage clogging landfills
In 1998, Keurig launched what seemed like a niche-market device that brewed a single cup of coffee using a K-Cup, which has come to be known as a pod.
The machine punctures the aluminum lid of a plastic container filled with grounds, streams hot water through it, and out comes coffee.
For a while, nobody paid much attention. Six years ago, only 15 per cent of Canadians owned a machine that used the pods, and that was double the percentage of Americans who thought it was a good investment or a good idea.
By 2017, 38 per cent of Canadians owned a single-cup system, along with a third of Americans. From a marketing point of view, it’s an amazing story.
Coffee companies have been forced to rethink and retool. Some, like Nespresso, have their own machines as well as their own pods. Retailers have replaced jars of instant coffee on shelves with boxes of pods, and even big coffee sellers like Tim Hortons and Starbucks have branded their own.
Frankly, it’s never made sense to me. The convenience doesn’t trump either the increased cost or the mountain of garbage these things create. And despite handsome George Clooney’s ads, making a single cup of coffee at home by myself has never really screamed luxury to me. But, apparently lots of people like them.
In Canada last year, Torontobased Club Coffee estimated 2.8 million pods are discarded every day. In 2013, when fewer than 20 per cent of Americans were using pods, it was estimated that if you lined up only K-Cups alone (not including pods manufactured by other suppliers), they would wrap the equator 10.5 times. That’s a whole lot of trash at a time when most municipalities are already drowning in garbage and scientists are only starting to discover the harms of microplastics and microfibres in our rivers and oceans.
Locally owned Canterbury Coffee’s One Cup was one of the first to have biodegradable pods made with compostable materials. Others have followed, but U.S. companies have ended up in court because their so-called compostable pods can only be broken down in industrial composters.
Unlike some of the others, Nespresso’s pods are made only from aluminum, but it has pledged that by 2020 customers around the world will have recycling options.
Earlier this month, with the help of Recycle B.C., it has expanded a pilot project it started last May in Coquitlam and Anmore.
Since March 1, Vancouver Nespresso buyers get free recyclable green bags for their used pods. Those bags can be used for curbside recycling. Recycle B.C. collects them and ships them off to what Nespresso describes as a partner with a “one-of-a-kind-inCanada” process that separates the grounds and the aluminum. The aluminum is repurposed and the grounds become compost.
Neither Nespresso nor Recycle B.C. will say how much it will cost, or even how many pods are likely to be recycled through this program.
The cost doesn’t come from governments and taxpayers, Nespresso and Recycle B.C. are quick to point out. Instead, it’s buried in the price consumers pay because Recycle B.C. is a non-profit supported by the industries that produce paper and plastic waste.
Still, it seems more convenient and likely less expensive than what Nespresso has set up in the United States. There, clean, used pods can be put into prepaid UPS bags and dropped off at UPS or Staples. From there, they go to recycling facilities. In Britain, consumers have to clean them and take them to Nespresso boutiques. (Yes, coffee boutiques.)
So, how many pods end up in B.C. landfills? Nobody has done the calculation. But Langdon said: “It’s safe to say that not many are recycled.”
And that means taxpayers and municipal governments are stuck with the costs at a time when landfills are quickly filling up.
Yet even if consumers do compost or recycle the increasingly ubiquitous pods, the environmental costs are enormous, from the input costs of producing, transporting and selling singleserve containers to the costs of picking up the used ones and delivering them to either landfills or recycling depots.
We don’t need single-use coffee pods along with the mostly plastic machines that make them work any more than we need single-use plastic straws or most plastic bags or even plastic cutlery.
So why have them? Convenience? It’s not hard to make coffee. It doesn’t even take that long, regardless of whether you’re using old-fashioned instant or a French press. Besides, don’t you miss out on something when you can’t smell the coffee brewing ?
The ubiquitous Keurig K-Cup and similar single-use coffee pods produce a tremendous amount of garbage in our landfills and even if they can be recycled, the cost and effort is hardly worth the supposed convenience these products promise, writes Daphne Bramham.