Keurig’s K-Cups Inch Closer to Being 100% Recyclable

Keurig Green Mountain Inc. is making progress towards its goal of making all K-Cups recyclable by 2020. Following successful recycling research trials, the company has unveiled plans to transition the entire product line to polypropylene, according to Plastics News.

The majority of the controversial but very convenient coffee pods are classified with a No. 7 resin recycling code.

“For about 10 years now we’ve been told they are too small to make it through the equipment,” Monique Oxender, Chief Sustainability Officer at Keurig Green Mountain, said last week at the Plastics Caps & Closures Conference in Itasca, Illinois.

At Sustainable Brands 2015 San Diego earlier this year, Oxender discussed some of the company’s challenges in transitioning to recyclable materials. It was expected that the cups’ small size would result in them being sent to landfills regardless of their material composition.

“It’s not just a K-Cup or Keurig issue – it’s a small item recovery issue,” she noted during the panel.

The coffee giant then worked with KW Plastics Recycling Division of Troy, Atlanta to research how K-Cups travel through traditional recycling facilities. Most of the cups were successfully sorted into the container line, although some ended up in the glass and paper streams.

“In our trials, which were large-scale trials, 70 percent of these small items are making it to the container line and are available for recovery. So there’s value being left on the table for the MRF. There’s value being left on the table for the reclaimers. There’s an economic incentive to make some changes,” Oxender said.

She acknowledged that the transition would be slow, but she still expects the company to meet its target for 2020. She said it was not disclosing timelines but would be “making significant progress each year” and are “moving as fast as [they] possibly can.”

“Because of the volume of cups – we’re taking about multiple manufacturing facilities across North America — it is quite an undertaking to make a transition like this and to basically change our entire supply chain as well.”

Three out of the four pod types for the Keurig 2.0 system have been made of recyclable polypropylene since the beginning of the year, according to Keurig Green Mountain’s website. The company is also pursuing take-back programs to reclaim and process used pods, and is investing in municipal recycling as a member of the Closed Loop Fund.

Unfortunately, successfully recycling K-Cups will take more than recyclable plastics. K-Cups also have a foil cover, a paper-based filter, and contain coffee grounds. Before the product can be recycled, the foil cover must be removed and the grounds emptied.

KW Plastics’ recycling process separates the paper filter from the plastic cases, but the foil cover can be difficult for consumers to remove – a significant enough problem that one company, Recycle A Cup, sells a product that cuts and separates used K-Cups for recycling.

Some of Keurig’s smaller competitors have approached the problem differently by developing (mostly) biodegradable alternatives to the brand name K-Cups, including Canterbury Coffee Corp’s OneCoffee pods, Rogers Family Company’s OneCup BIO pods, and Republic of Tea’s One Cuppa pods. Hopefully Keurig Green Mountain will emerge with a scalable and truly sustainable solution.


Update September 25, 2015: Just this week, a 100% biodegrable single-serve coffee pod was announced by Canadian coffee retailer Club Coffee. The company's PῧrPod100™ earned Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certification, making it the first fully compostable coffee pod on the market.

"Certification of 100% compostable pods cuts through confusing single-serve coffee product claims," said Club Coffee CEO John Pigott. "Until now, consumers have had no options other than adding single-serve pods to their garbage. In today's market, some pods claim to be partially biodegradable, while others tout some recyclability – but none of those claims are backed by independent third-party validation. In contrast, BPI certification of PῧrPod100™ provides consumers with clear evidence that the only convenient and proven solution is certified 100% compostable pods filled with the high-quality coffee, tea and hot beverages that they expect from single-serve."

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