The Keurig K-Cup Konundrum

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

You’ve all seen them. You may have one in your home. Maybe there’s one in the breakroom at your workplace. They are easy to use, require almost no maintenance or cleaning and can have you sipping your morning joe before you can say “America Runs on Dunkin’.”

The Keurig single-cup coffee brewer is perhaps the best example of American lust — almost exclusively sated at the expense of the environment — for all things cheap and convenient.

Even if you are using a reusable mug to drink your K-offee, a small, non-recyclable plastic cup is produced for each cup that you drink. Unless, of course, you have the Keurig My K-Cup, a reusable filter designed for use with your favorite coffee. Unfortunately, the My K-Cup is only compatible with eight of the 15 models of one-cup brewers marketed by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, who acquired Keurig in 2006; online customer reviews of these filters are lackluster at best, with only 50 percent of reviewers claiming they would recommend the product to a friend.

Keurig claims a pretty significant market share in the coffee world. According to its corporate profile, 2.5 million K-Cup beverages are brewed in the homes and offices of North America daily, more than 2 billion of the tiny cups have been used since 1998 and 200,000 offices in North America have Keurig systems, boasting 6 percent of all coffee brewed in offices every day.

ecoRI News contacted New Harvest Coffee Roasters in Pawtucket to get some stats on coffee bought by the pound. By comparison, a pound of ground coffee in a single bag will produce about 25 cups of coffee with considerably less waste — as in, not 25 small, impossible-to-recycle, mixed-material cups. Seriously waste-conscious java junkies in Rhode Island can even refill their bags at most supermarkets and at roasting houses such as Coastal Roasters in Tiverton, Coffee Exchange in Providence and the aforementioned New Harvest Coffee Roasters.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR, on its official letterhead) in Vermont is the exclusive distributor of the Keurig K-Cups and it offers more than 200 varieties of coffee, tea, hot cocoa, cider, and iced beverages in wasteful one-serving cups. While the company enjoys a very "green" public perception, the K-Cup seems to be the antithesis to sustainability. ecoRI News contacted GMCR’s vice president of corporate and social responsibility, Michael Dupee, to talk about the K-Cup impact on our landfill and about the company’s green initiatives.

Dupee said that, when GMCR acquired Keurig, the sustainability of the K-Cup became a high priority because, “We can’t ignore consumer perception, but it is a difficult technical challenge to create a package that is airtight, blocks light, and has the required thermal properties and rigidity necessary to function in the brewer.”

The company recently completed a life-cycle analysis on the K-Cups, which is now being vetted by a third party. The preliminary results showed that the greatest environmental impact of the plastic portion packs is actually upstream from the user, according to Dupee.

“We found that the production and shipping of the plastic cup were the largest culprits, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions to the environment,” he said.

To counter these environmental impacts, the company changed how it packaged the bulk cups from just throwing them in a box, which created a lot of empty space in each case, to a smaller packaging system that reduced the volume of the packaging while retaining the same number of cups in a pack.

“That one change amounted to a 20 percent reduction in GHG emissions from shipping," Dupee said. "We can ship more cups in less space.”

The company also has begun a pilot takeback program for K-Cups consumed in offices called “Grounds to Grow On.” In the program, companies return the used cups to GMCR, which are then dismantled; the coffee grounds are composted and the remaining materials are incinerated at a waste-to-energy plant. Waste-to-energy incineration, Dupee said, technically qualifies as a renewable energy source, but we at ecoRI News have our doubts. Burning plastic is, basically, the same as burning oil.

The company also takes back about 60 percent of returned brewers to refurbish as display or demonstration models. Any brewers not fit for refurbishing are dismantled and 90 percent of the component parts are recycled, according to Dupee.

The Keurig brewer and K-cup are not the only areas in which GMCR is attempting to reduce its waste/carbon footprint. The company has a litany of environmental and social justice issues that it attempts to address through its corporate and social responsibility efforts — from buying carbon offsets to reducing landfillable waste at its Vermont facilities.

The K-Cup’s life-cycle analysis and vetting should be complete by next year, at which time GMCR will make the reports available on its website. As for the future sustainability of the K-cup, Dupee said, “We are ready to invest in materials that don’t even exist yet.”

That is of little solace to waste conscious Rhode Islanders. In addition to the plastic and Styrofoam cups — sometimes both — that surround so many hot and iced beverages from Dunkin’ Donuts, that litter our streets and continue to collect in the Central Landfill, D&D has begun selling its own brand of the K-Cup that is, inevitably, destined for the same place.