Let’s talk about K-Cups

My last office was typically millennial: there were 8 of us, and almost 8 coffee-brewing methods. French press, ceramic pour-over, aero-press, cold brew…and down the hall, there was also a Nespresso and a traditional drip coffee machine.

And in my office now: we have a Keurig. Actually, two Keurigs.

THE WORST, right?

So I thought too. Remember when Keurig went from America’s favorite coffee trend to everyone’s favorite eco-villain, seemingly overnight? CNet called the coffee pods “pure evil”; Motherboard dubbed the Keurig “hell devices that everyone should boycott.” John Sylvan, the man who invented the pods, said he sometimes regrets his invention because of the “vast amounts of plastic waste.” 

Why the focus on waste? Because it is visible and easy to understand from anyone’s perspective. I mean, who ISN’T alarmed at the statistic that there are enough coffee pods in landfill to wrap around the earth more than 10 times? But tangible waste isn’t the only thing that matters when it comes measuring a product’s environmental impact.

Time. to. read. some. life-cycle assessments! (What do you mean, that is NOT everyone’s first instinct?!)

Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a technique that systematically examines the environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product’s life-cycle. For coffee, this means quantifying all the inputs and outputs (energy, water, raw materials, emission) throughout the life of that cup of joe: growing, harvesting, roasting, transporting, warehousing, packaging, brewing and disposing.

A simple illustration of how LCA works. Image credit: Ecoinvent

And to my surprise, several LCA studies demonstrate that single-use coffee pods are most definitely not always the worst option. Here is why: compared to a cup of coffee brewed in a single-serve machine that uses the exact amount of coffee and water needed, a cup made from a traditional drip coffee machine may have a bigger environmental impact due to 1) the amount of coffee wasted from over-brewing or loss-of-freshness and 2) the energy needed to keep the pot warm on the hot plate (which might also burn your coffee over time —> more waste). 

When you pour all that extra or stale coffee down the drain, you are also throwing away all the resources (fuel, water, land, fertilizers, etc.) that went into producing that wasted coffee. Not to mention all the emission needlessly generated throughout the process. One study finds that the environmental impact of one cup of drip, bulk-brewed coffee is only the same as a pod-made cup when the drip coffee is made accurately with no waste, and heated on a hot plate for 37 minutes.

(To check out the sources I read, click here, here, here and the link above. Keurig has also done their own LCA, reaching similar conclusions, but I can’t find the original study to vet their methods.)

Look – I’m not suggesting waste is not important, and I’m not advocating that you buy a Keurig now. All I am saying is that switching to a drip maker without being mindful of potential waste and other factors won’t necessarily shrink your overall environmental footprint.

Bottom line:

  1. If you use a Keurig: first of all, breath. You are not a monster.
  2. If your office wants to switch to a communal drip coffee machine, plan ahead to minimize waste: discuss who is making the coffee? How much coffee? And does it need to be kept hot all day?
  3. If you love the convenience of a single-serve machine, consider using a refillable pod or a brand that allows recycling (e.g. Nespresso). 
  4. Want to ditch the pods all together? Try a new way of brewing coffee! French press, pour over, cold brew…the possibilities are endless!

(Side note: K-Cups are transitioning from #7 to #5 plastic, which is recyclable in some cities and certainly through mail-in programs like this one. But the cumbersome process to take the pods apart, dump the coffee grounds, rinse, and recycle seems to defeat the whole convenience factor of K-Cups, if you ask me.)

What’s your preferred method to brew coffee?