Waste: The Dark Side of the New Coffee Craze 

Single-cup brewing is the hottest and most lucrative sector of the coffee market nationwide, but it's also producing massive amounts of trash.

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Whether it's delicious or not, single-cup coffee is expensive. In fact, pound-for-pound, it costs consumers far more than the finest artisanal coffee available in the Bay Area. A 24-pack of Folgers Gourmet Selections K-Cup, for example, typically retails for $16.49. The capsules each hold roughly 8 grams of coffee, which means that the 24-pack works out to about $39 a pound. A 24-pack of Starbucks House Blend typically costs $22.49, or about $53 a pound. By contrast, the same Starbucks roast costs just $12 a pound when sold in a single bag. An artisanal bean, like Four Barrel Coffee's Kenya Gatomboya, a shade-grown coffee from a 700-member cooperative, costs $18 for a 12-ounce bag, or about $24 a pound.

But as expensive as single-cup coffee is for consumers, the costs to the environment are even higher.

As consumers replace bags of ground coffee in their pantries with boxes of disposable pods, the amount of packaging waste associated with coffee-making has swelled exponentially. "We can get to a cup of coffee dozens of different ways," said Martin Bourque, director of the Ecology Center in Berkeley. "The best way is a large volume of coffee that goes into a cup that's washed and re-used a thousand times, and the coffee goes to compost or mushroom production. That's best-case scenario," he said. "The worst-case scenario is these pods."

Some single-serve coffee systems use plastic pouches, while others use aluminum pods, but most, including the popular Keurig K-Cup system, rely on plastic capsules. This is the kind Peet's opted for. They're miniature, disposable drip brewers: A plastic mesh filter basket filled with coffee grounds enclosed in a plastic cup and sealed with a plastic-and-foil lid. The single-cup machines then pierce the lid and the bottom of the capsule and flush hot water through to produce a cup of coffee.

"The challenge presented by these single-cup pods is the fact that you have a multi-material item," explained Tom Padilla, recycling coordinator for StopWaste.org, the agency tasked with creating a sound waste management and recycling program for Alameda County. Even if the capsule components were individually recyclable, he said, they're impossible to process because they're fused together.

"They were designed to be trash from the outset," said Rebecca Jewell, recycling program manager for Waste Management's San Leandro facility. Hopeful consumers continually toss them in the recycling bin, she said, but they end up in a landfill anyway.

Coffee companies are well aware of the problem. The second brewing system Keurig introduced, the Vue system, tried to address the issue of recyclability in what the company called "an incremental step on our environmental journey." The system doesn't work with the original K-Cup packs, which are made from number seven plastic, a blended plastic that's nearly impossible to recycle. Instead, the Vue capsules use a plastic cup made from polypropylene, number five plastic, and users can peel the foil lid and filter away from the cup.

The cups are then recyclable — in theory. The problem is the cups are too small to be captured in most recycling facilities where machinery separates objects by size and density, said Mark Oldfield, assistant director of public affairs for California's Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. Most facilities filter out items under two-inches in diameter. In any case, number five plastic is rarely recycled in California, Oldfield said. "It's very difficult to deal with something like that," he added. "It's something where convenience is trumping our typical mantra of reducing and recycling."

At the Davis Street Transfer Station, where Jewell works, half of Oakland's trash and recycling is processed. Some 750,000 tons of garbage move through the facility every year. The trucks that empty our trash cans dump their loads here, into a pit, nine-feet deep with trash, where a dozer churns it up before semi-trucks take it to the Altamont Landfill.

Our recyclables end up at Davis Street, too. They enter the sorting facility through a chute, dropping onto a vibrating sifter — a metal platform punched full of holes — and as they bounce across it, the small items fall through. Everything else jostles along into a sorting system of chutes, magnets, and blowers that empties onto conveyor belts, where workers clad in goggles, dust masks, and needle-proof gloves winnow out valuable materials.

Outside the city-block-size building that houses the sorting apparatus, the small objects sifted out of the recycling form a mini mountain range. The coffee pods from our recycling bins land here, amid bottle caps, pill bottles, marbles, plastic dolls, and the spent limes from countless Coronas. "We are always trying to capture the little objects in the hope of finding glass," Jewell said.

Mixed in with all the junk here are shards — valuable because California's wine industry keeps the market for recycled glass strong, Jewell explained. The small pieces of debris, including the single-cup pods, get shipped to a glass-recycling facility, where they're separated from the glass using magnets and float baths and then sent to a landfill.

So while coffee companies tout the energy-efficiency of single-cup brewers and trumpet their solution to wasted coffee, their organic and fair trade pods pile up in landfills by the billions. "Even though they're little, they add up," noted Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

There's a dearth of data available on the amount of waste generated by single-serve brewing systems, but a little back-of-the-envelope arithmetic offers a crude — and eye-popping — estimate: The US Census Bureau puts the total US population at around 316 million, so if one-third of us are using single-cup brewers at home or at work, that's more than 100 million single-serve coffee packages a day or 36.5 billion a year. (Keep in mind, that may be a conservative estimate because it assumes that each person only makes one cup of single brew a day.) If the capsules weigh roughly 12 grams (like Peet's pods), that's 438 billion grams of single-cup coffee packaging used annually, or about 966 million pounds of waste. That's the equivalent of throwing away about 150,000 Hummer H2s each year.

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