The race to compost K-Cups
Consumer outrage over the mountain of K-Cup waste created by Keurig coffee machines is brewing innovation.
Mike Hachey was looking for a more convenient and better-tasting coffee machine for his small, but growing, production company.
The chief executive officer of Egg Studios settled on a Keurig, the leading single serve coffee maker, in part because it’s a more environmentally friendly way to brew.
The machines waste less electricity, water and coffee, because users make one cup at a time instead of leaving a pot on the burner all day and then throwing some of it out.
The coffee also tasted better.
“These are really good little machines. The kind you could put in a board room. They’re definitely a step above the regular coffee maker,” Hachey said.
Indeed, single serve coffee machines have proven so popular with consumers that an estimated one in four U.S. households now owns one.
In Canada, single pod coffee accounted for 49 per cent of all coffee sales in grocery stores by dollar value during the 12 months ending May 30, 2015, according to Nielsen data.
Sales of coffee in restaurants, meanwhile, have fallen 3 per cent, in part due to the rising popularity of home brewers, according to The NDP Group. “Brewing at home is becoming more convenient and more cost effective as single-serve devices become more popular,” Robert Carter, executive director at The NPD Group, noted in a recent statement.
But Hachey soon made a sobering discovery. The disposable K-Cups that contain the coffee aren’t recyclable or compostable. Instead, they were filling up the office trash can at an alarming rate. He wasn’t alone.
“We have a guy who used to work in the financial district in Toronto and he said he’d walked by a dumpster full of those every day on his way to work,” Hachey recalled.
After reading in Mother Jones magazine that Green Mountain had produced 8.3 billion K-Cups in 2013, enough to circle the globe 10.5 times, Hachey decided he had to do more than simply chuck the office coffee maker.
His Halifax production company decided the best way to spread the word was by creating a video. Called Kill the K-Cup. they posted it on YouTube in January, anonymously at first. It quickly went viral.
Positioned as a spoof of a typical Hollywood blockbuster invasion-style movie with thousands of K-Cups raining out of the sky, the video landed at just the right time.
Consumers’ frustration with the new Keurig 2.0 machine, which accepted only Keurig-approved cups, was all over social media.
Suppliers of less expensive K-Cups that no longer worked in the new machines sued Keurig Green Mountain Inc. for billions. More environmentally friendly reusable K-Cups also did not work in the Keurig 2.0.
The company’s stock suffered as quarterly sales and profits missed expectations. The share price fell 10 per cent on May 6, after the company said quarterly sales of its machines fell 23 per cent year over year.
The company eventually backed down, allowing unlicensed makers of K-Cup pods to resume supplying the machines.
But the trash problem persisted. Even its co-creator has been quoted as regretting his invention.
Enter Club Coffee, a Toronto-based company in the coffee business since 1906. It’s the largest roaster, manufacturer and distributor of packaged coffees sold in Canadian grocery stores under its own and others’ brand names.
Club Coffee operates two major production facilities in Toronto, employing 220 people and is certified organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and Kosher.
It’s also on the verge of launching what it calls the world’s first 100 per cent compostable single-serve coffee pod.
Called PurPod 100, it would work with all single serve coffee makers, including the ubiquitous Keurig.
“The vision we’ve had from day one is the pod goes from your brewer into your green bin,” says Claudio Gemmiti, senior vice-president innovation and strategic growth for Club Coffee.
With the help of researchers at the University of Guelph, the company has achieved this goal by eliminating the plastic cup in favour of a “soft pod” that consists of a lid, a filter, a ring and, of course, the coffee.
The most innovative part, the ring which holds the pod in the brewer, packs a double environmental whammy by using otherwise wasted coffee chaff – the thin skins leftover when coffee beans are roasted – as part of the material, Gemmiti notes.
It’s been a steep uphill climb. In addition to developing the technology, the company needs to get the product certified 100 per cent compostable before it can advertise that feature. It must then persuade Canadian municipalities to accept the item in their compost streams.
But Gemmiti says the company is closing in on its goal of launching the product in the fall of 2015.
Club Coffee is just one of several firms in Canada and the U.S. racing to get its solution to market ahead of competitors.
G-Kup Coffee in Vancouver says it will be ready to roll out its patented compostable coffee pod by the start of next year.
G-Kup says its pod retains the rigid cup. But instead of plastic, it’s made of bagasse, or sugarcane fibre, lined with Ingeo, a trademarked brand name of NatureWorks for a range of bioplastics made from sugar.
The combination allows the cup to withstand the heat, liquid and pressure required to brew a cup of coffee within 32 seconds, says G-Kup chief executive officer Darren Footz.
“Single serve coffee has seen such explosive growth,” said Footz, former CEO of Granville Island Coffee, “We couldn’t afford to ignore it. But the downside is these little cups can’t be recycled or composted.”
Mother Parkers in Mississauga is aiming to package all of its single serve coffee brands in a recyclable cup by 2016.
Keurig Green Mountain, meanwhile, has committed to ensuring that 100 per cent of its K-Cup pods are recyclable by 2020, the company said in a emailed statement attributed to Stéphane Glorieux, president, Keurig Canada
Some of the issues facing the makers of compostable cups could include maintaining freshness. Also, many products that make compostable claims don’t degrade in home settings.
In B.C., Keurig said it’s working with Van Houtte Coffee Services to divert millions of K-Cup pods from local landfill by sending them to local partners who give them a second life.
But for people like Hachey, Keurig’s commitment to recyclable cups is too little too late. And, in fact, it’s going in the wrong direction.
“People won’t recycle them because they won’t take the time to take them apart,” he says. “You need something you can just throw away naturally.”
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