Many consumers started brewing their own coffee at home during the pandemic, which gained Keurig three million new users in 2020 alone. With an estimated 33 million households having Keurigs, billions of K-Cups are being disposed of every year. But are K-Cups recyclable like Keurig claims, or are they being sent straight to the landfill?
Here’s everything a recycling expert wants you to know before brewing your next cup of coffee.
Are K-Cups Recyclable?
In 2020, Keurig converted its K-Cups from #7 plastic (which is nearly impossible to recycle) to polypropylene, a #5 plastic. While that switch may sound better in theory, the reality is only 3% of polypropylene plastic products get recycled in the United States. But the type of plastic is only part of the problem.
K-Cups are an environmental nightmare for many reasons,” says Briggs. “Even if it’s a #5 plastic, which is more recyclable than a #7, it will still have other materials incorporated into the product, not to mention the coffee grounds—a huge contaminant for plastics markets (or any market).”
A K-Cup can’t be recycled as a whole. Even in order to attempt to recycle the #5 plastic pod, you need to do the very tricky and time-consuming task of separating the K-Cup components, which include a plastic cup, a filter, coffee grounds, and an aluminum foil top. The coffee grounds and filter can be composted, and the aluminum top has to go in the trash.
Unless you perfectly separate these components before putting the K-Cup in your recycling bin, it will end up in a landfill. But even if you do take the time to separate the components, the chances of them getting recycled are still slim.
“Let’s say it was only made of one material, and that we had a buyer for that material. Even then, a K-Cup is too small to pass through a standard Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), which is where your recyclables get sorted from one another. So most likely, the cup will fall through the ‘fines screen’ and contaminate the glass screen.”
So, are K-Cups recyclable? The reality is, like with many products, the recycling symbol at the bottom of the pod is very misleading. With that being said, Briggs says recycling programs and infrastructure vary from place to place, so it’s always a good idea to call your local recycling center and ask if they accept them.
“While K-Cups aren’t recyclable through my program, another program might say they take them. This is because they may have lower-grade plastics markets, a pilot program, or looser communication guidelines for the public and sort them out as contamination,” Briggs says. “But generally, K-Cups are not recyclable. If they were getting recycled in the past, I’d imagine they were getting shipped to China (which is no longer an option due to the passage of China’s ‘National Sword’ policy), where there was little to no transparency about what happened to them.”
The Solution? Go the Reusable Route
At this point, you know K-Cups aren’t recyclable in most cases. But recyclability isn’t the only issue. According to Briggs, it’s also important to remember it isn’t just about where the item goes when you’re done with it. “It’s about the many resources it took to make that item and get it to you,” she says.
“In this case, oil and gas are fracked from the earth, aluminum is strip-mined from bauxite in the tropics, huge amounts of energy and water are used to refine them, huge amounts of emissions are made from transporting it all around the world and to you… you get the picture,” she says. “So even if you could painstakingly take apart your pod to recycle it, think about whether those upstream resources and emissions are worth it to you.”
How about compostable coffee pods? While they seem like a better option, you’re still dealing with similar issues.
“Even if it’s BPI certified compostable (many aren’t), and even if you have access to an industrial composter (most folks don’t), that thing is still single-use,” she says. “It’s representing a linear use of resources.”
Briggs says the best option for the planet is avoiding K-Cups altogether, or at least as much as you can. If you have a Keurig machine at home or at work, you can still make your coffee routine more eco-friendly by using a reusable coffee filter. At $10, it will save you money and allow you to use more sustainable coffee, including Fair Trade coffee options.
Yes, it’s a bummer that these plastic pods aren’t as recyclable as they’re said to be. Luckily, with a simple swap, you can sip your morning cup of Joe worry-free.
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