Pity the poor office coffee pot, which is, generally speaking, a disgusting sight. The typical staff room coffee pot sits there, slowly simmering, until the dregs are finally discarded. Some people (you know who you are!) pour the last of the coffee, then scurry away quickly without bothering to clean the pot, refill the filter basket, tidy up countertop spills, or start a fresh pot for co-workers. The coffee grounds in the big soggy filter basket sit there neglected, waiting for the Coffee Fairy (or your mother) to come in and clean it all up.
Enter the single-serve coffeemaker system.
Decades ago, coffeemaker manufacturers like Keurig or Nespresso or Tassimo among others began to offer machines that use handy-dandy pre-measured single-serving coffee capsules, designed to be used in office settings. These little packs of coffee are, of course, meant for use with one single brand or system and are rarely interchangeable with other brands. Some coffee systems use plastic pouches to hold the pre-measured coffee grounds, while others use aluminum pods, but most rely on plastic capsules. Each capsule contains 5–6 grams of ground coffee and makes one cup of coffee. No need to buy bags of whole beans, or to worry about grinding the beans, or to measure out messy scoops of coffee every morning, or to expect your lazy colleagues to replace the empty coffee pot at work.
Just pop one of these little pods into your single-serving machines and hit the start button. Hot water is forced through the pre-packed capsule, passing through the grounds and filter into your coffee mug waiting below.
It was only a matter of time before manufacturers figured out that what works so well to address the disgusting mess in office staff rooms just might sell for our kitchens at home, too.
As this was described in the East Bay Express:*
“Industry experts say it isn’t just the utility of the machines that’s galvanized consumers. Single-cup systems offer a near-irresistible trifecta: convenience, consistency, and variety.
“As the brewers claim space on ever more kitchen countertops, the fleet of single-cup beverages keeps growing. Keurig alone boasts more than 30 brands (including Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts) and 250 of its ‘K-Cup Pack’ flavors, including raspberry chocolate truffle coffee, Snapple lemon iced tea, and acaí berry fruit brew.”
But although the coffee is often marketed as “premium” and the machines as status symbols for discerning consumers, the actual quality of single-serve coffee is under attack by coffee aficionados.
These are generally cheaply-sourced coffee beans, mass-ground and freeze-dried, tiny scoops of poor-quality coffee encased in colorful little plastic or aluminum containers to create inferior coffee squirted through a punctured piece of non-recyclable plastic.
And as Matt Holden wrote in What Your Coffee Says About You in The Age:
“For the price of one of these machines, you could buy a low-end espresso machine and learn to make decent espresso with any beans you want.”
In his book, The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee, James Freeman rails against single-serve coffee. In one section he calls “A Special Place in Hell: Pod Coffee,” he blasts producers for hijacking the trappings of excellence while delivering a craft-less cup.
“Pod coffee is bad and wrong. It teases people into an industrially produced product masquerading as handcrafted. It’s simply impossible for them to make a truly tasty beverage.”
Taste notwithstanding, this single-cup coffee is expensive. In fact, ounce for ounce, this coffee costs consumers far more than the finest artisanal coffee beans available. A 24-pack of individual pods has the equivalent of ground coffee worth about $39 a pound for Folgers Gourmet Selections K-Cups, or $53 a pound for the same number of Starbucks House Blend pods. (The same Starbucks roast costs just $12 a pound when sold in a single bag of coffee beans). By comparison, an artisanal bean, like those from Kicking Horse Coffee (the largest Fair Trade roaster in Canada), a beautiful shade-grown, organic coffee will cost you less than $24 a pound. If you’re a tea lover who uses the Tassimo single-cup brewing machine (made by a subsidiary of Kraft Foods), one cup of Twining’s green tea will cost about 56¢ per cup using your Tassimo T-disc, and less than 7¢ per cup if you use a Twining’s green tea bag and plain old boiling water.
But it’s the costs to the environment that can be even higher than the costs to the consumer.
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, as Martin Bourque, director of the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California explained in an East Bay Express interview:
“We can get to a cup of coffee dozens of different ways. 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.
“The worst-case scenario is these pods.”
And these convenient and tidy little plastic cups cannot be recycled and are collecting in our landfills, as reported by CNBC:
“Keurig’s K-cups are made of a plastic shell, lined with a paper filter and topped with aluminum. Individually, the components are recyclable, but put together they can only be trashed. What’s more, the compost-able coffee grounds are trapped inside.”
Darby Hoover, who is a senior resource specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The New York Times:
“If you are trying to create something that is single-use, disposable, and relies on a one-way packaging that can’t be recycled, there are inherent problems with that.”
Keurig attempts to divert negative attention from its wasteful single-use, over-packaged, non-recyclable K-cups by talking instead of their corporate commitment to enviro-friendly sustainability at their manufacturing plants. Their corporate website boasts, for example:
“Diverted waste includes a number of items such as cardboard boxes, plastic and burlap bags, scrap left over from cutting filters for K-Cup® packs, scrap metal foil from machine turnover and packaging, metal can containers, and coffee bean chaff (the outer layer left over after roasting) and scrap organic material.
“We are working to send zero waste to landfill from each of our plants. Our roasting plant in Toronto diverted 99.3% of all waste from entering landfills by the end of 2012.”
Sounds fantastic. But what about the wasteful mess inherent in the end result of the manufacturing process at the consumer level – billions of their tiny non-recyclable K-cups lying in garbage cans and, thus, our landfills?
Other single-serve coffee businesses are trying. The New York Times report cites Flavia coffee pods, for example. Their used pods can be shipped to the New Jersey company TerraCycle, which will compost the coffee or tea and reuse the plastic in products like pavers and fencing. Last year, more than 2.5 million Flavia coffee packs in the United States were successfully recycled. And in the U.K, TerraCycle processed more than 800,000 coffee discs from Kraft’s Tassimo single-serve system. For some commercial clients, Nespresso offers recycling containers to toss your used cups into for free pickup, or you can bring your used cups to the company’s “boutique” shops if they have a “capsule collection point”. You may be able to take these cups to a UPS location for shipping to the nearest recycling depot. It’s a free service, but an ironic and time-consuming benefit for an industry that boasts “convenience” as a selling feature of single-serve coffee pods.
The speed and convenience promised in the marketing hype of single-serve coffee maker producers is, I think, a clever illusion. The industry has somehow convinced us that the drudgery of scooping good-quality coffee into an individual-sized drip coffee maker cone or into a French press pot is so unbearably time-consuming that their pod coffee is far preferable.
In fact, it takes me less than one minute each morning to grind my coffee beans, scoop the freshly ground coffee into my little Krups espresso machine, and then go brush my teeth while it brews for two minutes and 10 seconds total. (Compare that to a Keurig machine that needs about three minutes just to preheat its water reservoir before even starting to brew, which then needs another minute or so before your single cup is ready to drink).
How hard is it, really, to produce a heavenly brew that you actually care about that is not made with cheap freeze-dried coffee?
But if you are still buying that “convenience” message in producing mediocre coffee in handy-dandy little non-recyclable single-serve pods, what can you do to at least minimize the associated waste problem?
Look for single-serving coffee systems that use 100% biodegradable paper pouches instead of plastic/metal cups – you’ve probably already seen versions of these in your hotel room’s little coffeemaker.
Or you could buy a reusable filter cup for Keurig machines, readily available online ranging in price from $8 to $38 each. With these small cups, you can brew any coffee you want using your own favourite coffee that you measure into the reusable cup. You could even buy several of them and pre-fill them in advance so they’re almost as convenient as the expensive pre-packaged ones. Or participate in Nespresso and Tassimo recycling programs.
You can also find a number of online tutorials about how to use your Nespresso plastic cups more than once, with varying degrees of do-it-yourself messiness that should turn off all but the most ardent environmentalists.
Right away, you can see that these options require extra steps that will likely deter those who value easy-peasey convenience over other issues – like coffee quality or the environment.
For those folks, I guess there’s always that jar of instant coffee.
Image: SF Weekly
UPDATE, March 2015: Looking back on his invention, amid increasing public condemnation of his K-Cups’, John Sylvan now admits: “I don’t own one. I feel bad sometimes that I ever (invented them). No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable.”
* Vanessa Rancaño. “Waste: The Dark Side of the New Coffee Craze.” Easy Bay Express. August 13, 2013.