Keurig Green Mountain Inc. has taken North America by storm with its fabulously convenient coffee pod brewing system — up to three million homes in Canada own a Keurig machine.

But the company has also been a victim of that success, weathering epic abuse over the mountains of spent pods that clog landfills across the continent.

A 2015 spoof of a disaster movie that went viral on You-Tube, Kill the K-Cup, depicts monsters made of coffee pods who disembark from coffee pod flying saucers and rain terror on a city using spent Keurig pods as ordnance.

Now Keurig Canada Inc. wants consumers to feel better about coffee pods. The company has retooled its factory in St. Michel, a suburb of Montreal, to produce K-Cup pods in polypropylene No. 5, which is recyclable.

But recyclable where, and at what cost? 

While Halifax and cities across British Colombia, for example, accept the pod cups in the blue bin (provided consumers remove the lid, dump the coffee grounds, and, in the case of Halifax, remove the filter), big cities such as Toronto and Keurig’s home town of Montreal do not.

Keurig’s battle to salvage its environmental reputation is emblematic of the pitfalls that face companies: they may win friends with a simple, practical product, but also can get a bad name if they don’t plan what happens at the end of the product’s life.

“Over 60 per cent of Keurig users say that impact on the environment of using these machines is their number one concern,” said Robert Carter of NPD Canada, whose questionnaires survey 130,000 Canadians. “That’s really, really big.”

Pollution concerns, however, have not stopped people from buying K-Cups, because “the convenience factor always outweighs other factors,” Carter said. “Consumers say they believe companies are doing as much as they can to make these pods environmentally friendly.”

Coffee pods are tremendously convenient: just pop in the little capsule, press the button, and you get an exact-size, hot cup of coffee, every time. This ease of use has led to spectacular growth in the category.

 

Canada Fibers Ltd. plant manager Brian Sneyd displays Keurig coffee pods at Canada’s busiest recycling facility, in Toronto, Thursday August 10, 2017. The pods are too light and small to be detected by sorting machines or the plant’s workers, so they head to landfill.

Five years ago, consumers used a pod machine to brew one in five cups of coffee. Now 50 per cent of brewed coffee comes from a pod. Thanks to this ease, Canadians are drinking more coffee; we are the second-biggest coffee drinking nation on earth, NPD numbers show. Only Italy beats us.

All this coffee means lots of spent pods — and Keurig does not make recycling easy.

Here’s the 7-step process: The pod comes out of the machine hot. Let it cool. Then, struggle to peel the foil off its top (unlike yogurt tubs, there is no tab on the foil). Toss the foil in the garbage. Scoop the coffee grounds into the compost. Under the grounds a little paper filter is glued to the plastic. Tear that filter off and discard. Rinse excess grounds off the cup.

Now, throw the little plastic cups in the recycling (typically blue) bin — if your city permits it.

“We have some very serious concerns that nobody is going to separate the parts of the pod, and it’s just going to make the problem worse,” said Jim McKay, general manager of solid waste at the City of Toronto, which does not accept coffee pods for recycling.

He said Torontonians already toss 10 million such pods in the wrong bin. The city asks residents to throw them in the garbage.

But Stéphane Glorieux, chief executive of Keurig Canada, said in a phone interview that he feels confident that he can rescue his company’s environmental bona fides.

“We are going to change the way the consumer sees small items being recycled,” said Glorieux, whose company employs 1,400 across Canada. “We have invested $50 million in St. Michel. We want to brew a better world.”

He said all Keurig cups in Canada will be recyclable by the end of 2018. “It’s faster than our parent in the U.S. It’s a Canadian story. A lot of plastics are out there and we should recycle as much as we can.” 

Glorieux said that “94 per cent of communities across Canada can take a Keurig cup and recycle it.” A spokesperson later clarified, saying: “94 per cent of communities across Canada accept No. 5 plastic.”

Up to now, K-Cups have become a river heading to landfill; Keurig has produced over 60 billion pods worldwide to date. (That’s not counting Keurig-compatible pods produced by Tim Hortons, President’s Choice, Nabob and others, or other coffee pod makers, such as Massimo and Nespresso). Even the inventor of Keurig told the Atlantic magazine that he regrets his creation because of the waste it generates.

“It’s an extremely convenient product to use, but to manage it after you’ve used it is extremely inconvenient,” the city of Toronto’s McKay said.

Pollution concerns have not stopped people from buying K-Cups.

Keurig said that it has “begun conversations with Montreal,” about recycling its pods. A spokesperson for the city said it has not heard from the company yet. Marissa Celli, spokeswoman for Anie Samson, mayor of the Montreal borough of St. Michel, said, “all they did is send us an email saying they are working on recyclable K-Cups.” She said Keurig is a good local employer and helps disadvantaged students buy back-to-school supplies.

“Coffee pod capsules are not collected in our recycling programs,” Gabrielle Fontaine-Giroux, a spokeswoman for the city of Montreal, wrote in an email. “Very small and light, they risk getting caught in the machines and interfering with manual sorting of materials. And if they are not rinsed to get out coffee grounds they greatly risk contaminating other recyclable materials.”

Carter called Keurig’s push to a recyclable K-Cup “a big win for Keurig.” But when a reporter told him that Montreal and Toronto don’t accept the K-Cup in recycling, he said: “It’s kind of like putting lipstick on a pig if it doesn’t fit into the recycling program.

“I think Keurig itself should have a program where they can recycle it.”

In a similar program, Montreal residents can dispose of their Nespresso pods in a special bag. Nespresso picks those bags up at the city’s recycling depot.

In recent years, companies who make Keurig-compatible pods have taken a different tack — by making the cups “compostable.” Muskoka Roastery produces “100 per cent compostable pods.” Melitta claims the “world’s first certified 100 per cent compostable pods.” Loblaw has a compostable cup; G-Pak, a Vancouver company, has patented a “G-Kup” made from compostable sugar cane and bamboo fibres.

But while the pods may compost over time, they don’t decompose quickly enough for municipal composting programs.

“Some companies are claiming you can toss the (coffee pod) shells in the green bin,” says Brendan Elliott, a spokesman for the city of Halifax. “But it doesn’t break down as quickly as advertised. When you in the real world throw them in with banana peels, the K-Cup materials just don’t cut it.”

Halifax, therefore, doesn’t allow K-Cups in the compost. The city does allow residents to take apart the pods and recycle the plastic part. Few do, said Elliott. “The majority of society is looking for easier, faster, more convenient, and the method we are suggesting (to recycle) is not easier or faster.”

Toronto also doesn’t accept compostable coffee pods. “The definition of compostable is that it breaks down in 180 days, but we put materials through our digester in 16 days,” McKay said. 

In July the City of Toronto held a closed door workshop with private recycling companies and retailers to discuss ways to reduce the environmental footprint of coffee pods. The meeting underscored for McKay the disagreements in industry.

“There is a serious divide in the coffee pod industry now as to which pod is better: compostable or plastic,” McKay said.

Keurig points to British Columbia as a jurisdiction that recycles coffee pods. Recycle BC, a not-for-profit funded by 1,100 producers of packaging (including Keurig), recycles all of B.C.’s plastic and metal containers at a facility in New Westminster, B.C. The $15-million plant, with nine optical sorting machines, is the most advanced in North America, said Allen Langdon, the managing director. The sorters can recognize a K-Cup, sort it, and bail it with other No. 5 plastic.

But Langdon said that few people in B.C. recycle K-Cups.

“We are not seeing huge numbers of pods,” he said. “As Keurig makes the switch to polypropylene it will be an opportunity to engage with consumers more and recover more of the pods.”

Ultimately, the challenge for Keurig and others is that the people who love the convenience of popping a pod into a machine for a cup of fresh coffee are probably not the same people who would bother separating, rinsing and recycling the pod at the other end. Even those who do throw the pods in recycling or compost are, in many cities, making the problem worse.

“The environmental cost associated with these pods is high,” says Toronto councillor Jaye Robinson, chair of the city’s works committee, who has ordered a staff report for this fall on how to deal with the mess from coffee pods.

“It’s very misleading,” Robinson said. “If you have really good eyesight you can read the fine print that reads, ‘may not be accepted in your community.’ It would be really helpful if industry were just a tad more responsible in how they market their products.”

Financial Post