Keurig Green Mountain last year sold more than nine billion of its traditional single-serve plastic coffee pods — or K-Cups. Precisely zero could be easily recycled.
This inconvenient fact has provoked a decade of hand-wringing within the company, and discontent among consumers. Placed end to end, the pods sold in a year would circle the globe roughly 10 times. Concerns among environmentalists are mounting, and sales growth is slowing.
Now Keurig says it has found a solution. It is taking longer than it took for NASA to put a man on the moon, but in the coming months, the company will begin to sell K-Cups made of material that is easily recycled.
The new K-Cup, composed of polypropylene, gives Keurig an answer to critics who say the company has shown a flagrant disregard for the planet’s well-being. Like common plastic bottles, the new K-Cups can be sorted and shredded by middlemen and sold to manufacturers that use recycled plastic.
But the new K-Cups are unlikely to put an end to the attacks. Recyclable as they may be, the new cups are not compostable. They are not reusable. And Keurig will still be selling billions of pieces of plastic each year.
To many environmentalists, that makes for a fundamentally irresponsible business model.
“There are a lot of ways to make coffee that don’t use so much packaging,” said Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. “Making coffee wasn’t something that needed to be reinvented.”
Be that as it may, single-serve coffee is immensely popular. And though Keurig’s new K-Cups may not mollify all of its critics, the company says it is trying its best to manage an unsavory situation. “When you look at the trends toward single-serve generally, you can either villainize it, or you can fix it,” said Monique Oxender, Keurig’s chief sustainability officer. “We’re trying to fix it.”
How the K-Cup became ubiquitous is something of a fluke. Company lore has it that in the mid-1990s, when the Keurig founders were looking for a container they could use for the single-serve coffee machine they were designing, they came upon an unlikely candidate: the takeout salad dressing containers from a local restaurant, Ken’s Steakhouse.
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