Adrienne McShane considers herself to be a very lucky legal assistant. She and her colleagues no longer have to share the same pot of coffee that’s been congealing all day long on a burner in their Vancouver office.
Now, she simply reaches up and grabs one of the multiple varieties of single-serve coffee packs neatly lining the kitchen shelf, pops it into a state-of-the-art Keurig coffee brewer, pulls down on the ergonomic handle — and voilà — a fresh, personalized, no-mess cup of coffee.
“And there’s, like, a trillion more flavours at London Drugs,” says McShane.
In recent years, the single-cup coffee brewer has evolved from a charming toy for wealthy patrons of European hotels to a global home and office phenomenon. In North America, business is booming, particularly for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, maker of the Keurig brewing systems.
Yet while families and office workers around the world revel in its caffeinated convenience, the single-serve sensation is also clogging landfills with billions of non-recyclable plastic pods.
Any hopes that the coffee-spouting contraption would only be a passing fad were dashed this month by Starbucks’ announcement that it would be releasing its own ramped-up version of the single-cup brewer.
A buildup of brewers
Nestle’s Nespresso machine has been providing well-to-do Europeans with “the perfect cup of espresso coffee” since the mid-eighties. But it wasn’t until Green Mountain brought a less expensive drip version to North American homes that the single-cup brewer industry started making headlines.
Hailed as a revolutionary business model, the ultra-convenient Keurig coffee machines guaranteed loyalty by forcing consumers to continuously purchase machine-specific coffee packs.
Green Mountain said net sales more than doubled in the first quarter of fiscal 2012, driven by “strong holiday sales,” some 90 per cent of which it attributed to the Keurig brewing systems.
Keurig’s single-serve coffee pack, the K-Cup, consists of a small plastic cup, an interior filter containing ground coffee and a foil seal — none of which are recyclable.
In Green Mountain’s 2011 financial reports, the company did not include the number of K-cups sold, but did note that the number of brewing machines sold was 5.8 million.
In the first quarter of 2012 alone, it sold 4.2 million brewing machines.
The announcement, which hinted the machine would appear “just in time for the holidays,” sent Starbucks’ shares to their highest level in 52 weeks. Shares of Green Mountain, meanwhile, dove 16 per cent that day.
Starbucks’ new high-pressure machine, the Verismo System, will feature single-use pods for both coffee and milk, allowing customers to create “Starbucks-quality beverages” without ever setting foot in a Starbucks shop.
The company made no mention in its press release as to whether the Verismo pods would be recyclable and has not responded to multiple requests for clarification.
Despite the new competition from Starbucks, Green Mountain’s sales are still projected to more than double this year, bringing the estimated K-Cup count to over 10 billion for 2012. Add to this a new selection of plastic pods from the world’s most recognized coffee brand and the numbers are sure to continue their exponential growth.
Climbing the mountain
Green Mountain Coffee began in 1981 as a small Vermont café. As the company grew, it came to offer some of America’s first fair trade and environmentally sustainable coffee to a generation that was beginning to shun corporate greed and irresponsibility.
Under the slogan “Brewing a better world,” the company continues to play a significant role in the development of sustainable growing methods and the promotion of Fair Trade and Farm Identified coffee. Green Mountain also adheres to industry-leading labour, safety and environmental guidelines at its Latin American farms and Chinese factories, and funds a number of non-profit assistance groups that work closely with these communities.
In 2006, Green Mountain acquired Massachusetts-based coffee machine manufacturer Keurig (from the Dutch for “neat”), a company that had mastered the industrial single-serve coffee maker but was looking to enter the home appliance market.
Amidst doubts that consumers would ever pay $200 to $300 (US) for an otherwise $40 coffee maker, the Keurig home model was a runaway success. Before long, Green Mountain found itself at the top of a worldwide coffee empire built on piles of disposable cups.
With yearly growth now in the high 90 per cent-range, and with 84 per cent of net sales now attributed to the Keurig brewers and K-Cups, Green Mountain’s label of “fair trade pioneer” is quickly giving way to one of “capitalist mastermind.”
A swear word
“It’s already pretty darn convenient to make a cup of coffee, if you think about it,” says Taina Uitto, a Vancouver-based marine conservationist and environmental blogger.
Since 2010, Uitto has been living her life, to the best of her ability, without using any plastic at all.
Uitto says she is familiar with the Keurig brewing systems, but stresses that even if the notorious K-Cups were recyclable, it wouldn’t solve the greater problem: our addiction to convenience.
“Convenience should be a swear word,” says Uitto.
She even believes that certain attitudes toward recycling can work to perpetuate our disposable culture. “We’re so proud of our recycling these days, it doesn’t matter how overflowing our recycling bins are.”
“Plastic isn’t even recyclable, in the true sense of the word,” says Uitto, instead referring to the process as “downcycling” — a term that illustrates more accurately that a plastic product can only be re-formed once in its lifetime, not in a perpetual cycle as the symbol on the box suggests.
After that, just like any other waste, recycled plastic products ends up in a landfill, or — as is increasingly the case — in the ocean.
Out of sight
Another advantage McShane sees in her office’s industrial Keurig brewer is that it automatically deposits the hot, used K-Cup into an internal compartment, saving her from having to remove it manually. These are then emptied into a designated bin, which is hauled off on a regular basis by coffee service provider Van Houtte.
When asked her opinion on the K-Cup waste, McShane turned to her coworker and asked, “Don’t we recycle these?”
According to the Recycling Council of B.C., if the piece of plastic isn’t labeled as type #1, #2, #4 or #5, it has to go in the garbage.
The Keurig K-Cups display no recycling symbol at all.
Morten Schroder, vice president of Pacific Region operations at Coquitlam-based Van Houtte Coffee Services, confirms that the company does offer the removal of used K-Cups as part of their service package, but they do not advise clients that the cups are getting recycled.
Van Houtte’s website also acknowledges that K-Cups are not recyclable.
Schroder says that the used K-Cups are brought to a local incinerator facility (PDF) where they are used in the generation of steam power for the community.
“It’s not a perfect solution,” says Schroder, “but they’re not going into a landfill.”
Another issue that Uitto considers to be a problem is greenwashing: when a company broadly paints their product as “eco-friendly” in order to ease the environmental conscience of their clients while ensuring that cash continues to flow.
“Soon you’ll see some kind of eco-K-Cup out there,” she says, “and the company will win some kind of stupid award for it…but then everybody will have to get a new coffee maker to match the new container.”
In fact, last month Green Mountain introduced a new brewing system called Vue. It uses a K-Cup made of polypropylene #5 plastic, which, by the company’s estimate, is accepted for recycling in “about half” of the communities in the United States.
The new cup is incompatible with the original Keurig machines.
Recipe for ruin
Many environmentalists like Uitto cling to hopes that the single-serve coffee brewer may be just another as-seen-on TV plastic fad, soon to go the way of the vacuum food sealer or electric food dehydrator.
These hopes faded significantly with the Verismo System announcement by Starbucks, a global coffee giant already responsible for billions of discarded paper cups each year.
But even if future single-serve coffee packs are made recyclable or even biodegradable, Uitto says a significant amount of damage has already been done, and very little will improve as long as both companies and consumers continue to put convenience before responsibility.
It might already be too late. According to Uitto, “It would take a big, big turnaround to get things right in the short enough amount of time before we screw things up really big.”
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