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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"We're filling up our landfills with materials we should be using more wisely," Hoover said. "It's a trend of dissociating more and more from the consequences of using a product. Landfills represent our misconception of 'away.' What we mean is that they disappear from our daily lives and we don't have to think about them any more. Away is not something that is going to work long-term. Eventually we're going to fill up that pit in the ground and then another one and then another one."

Environmentalists also voice concerns about the impact of landfills through groundwater contamination and air pollution, as methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is released from decomposing material. Single-cup pods waste resources, too: When non-renewable source materials end up in landfills, those materials are lost forever. The building blocks of plastics are derived from petroleum, and our main source of aluminum is bauxite ore — with a finite supply of these resources, environmentalists point out, it makes little sense to allocate them to products that will be used once and then end up in a sealed pit. The essential problem with single-cup pods, Hoover continued, is that they're an unsustainable way of delivering coffee to people.

They're the worst-case scenario.

But they're awfully good for business. Environmentalists who've been watching the industry say the thrust toward small, intricately packaged products like coffee capsules is a boon for companies in many ways. "They're emblematic of the way that packaging is headed in general," said Bourque.

He explained that plastic packaging proliferated with the rise of global distribution in the Eighties, and as the cost of transporting products went up and their ability to abide travel became more important, plastics quickly replaced heavier, breakable glass containers. Now, new plastic technologies allow companies to use packaging to their advantage in other ways. Blister packs — "the ones you always worry about hurting yourself with," as Bourque describes them — have great marketing value. "There's a lot of real estate for you to put your brand on," he said. Plus, they make it possible for little products to hang prominently in stores instead of sitting on the shelf tucked in among dozens of competitors.

Single-serve coffee also provides companies more surfaces to paint their brand logo on, but environmentalists say it's exemplary of a more troubling tendency. "There's a trend where producers of globalized products are looking for ways to package and sell very small amounts of product because they make a lot more money than selling in bulk," noted Christie Keith, international co-coordinator for GAIA, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. This trend taps two sets of consumers: those with the luxury to pay for convenience, and those with means so limited they can only afford the smaller portions.

"The core of this question," Keith continued, "is when you're producing a lot of waste for a small quantity of product, who's suffering the consequences?"

Keith and her colleagues think we all are. They argue that at every stage of the process — from the public health costs of plastic resin manufacturing in Louisiana's "Cancer Alley" to the effects of long-distance product transport on air quality, to the cost of waste management services — we all pay the price. But is it worse for those of us who are already paying $50 a pound for coffee, or those of us who aren't?

The health effects of drinking something that's made by forcing scalding water through a flimsy plastic cup are unclear. A spokesperson for Keurig said the company uses only BPA-free plastics that have been approved by the FDA. One Keurig patent lists the K-Cup components as a blend of polyethylene, ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH), and polystyrene. These are all commonly used plastics, but there are known health issues associated with styrene. Styrene has been shown to migrate from containers into food or drinks and accumulate in our fatty tissue. Long-term exposure to small amounts of styrene has been linked to neurotoxic symptoms like fatigue, nervousness, and difficulty sleeping, plus low platelet counts and chromosomal and lymphatic abnormalities.

But Keith said that the way things work now, there's no incentive for corporations to take responsibility for the sustainability of their products. She supports extended producer responsibility laws, which hold corporations accountable for the costs of managing their products at the end of their life cycle, as one avenue for change. But large companies have historically opposed such laws, arguing that they'll be forced to raise product prices to defray the expense.

Hoover, however, noted that those costs aren't being created: Consumers will just see them at the store instead of on their garbage and recycling bills. And forcing producers to face those costs, she added, could make for saner packaging practices.

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