Canada

Coffee pod sales slip as environmental concerns rise

Ban on pods in Hamburg government buildings, sales slump suggest cooling on K-Cups

Keurig's single serving K-Cups

Canadian companies are searching for environmental solutions to those ubiquitous coffee pods that often end up in landfills. (CBC Calgary)

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Canadians seem to love using single-serve coffee pod machines, such as Keurig's popular K-Cup brewing system. As many as 40 per cent of us have one in our homes, according to the NPD Group, a marketing research firm. 

But a major problem for many is the impact of the pods on the environment. 

"If you took last year's production of K-Cups, which was almost 10 billion, and you were to take them and line them up end to end like this, they would encircle the globe more than twelve times at the equator," Murray Carpenter, the author of Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us, told CBC's The National in a 2015 interview.

Carpenter is one of many in recent years to sound the alarm bell on the popularity of the pods and what it's doing to the environment.

Now, we may be listening.

Disposable coffee pod sales decline

After years of growth, demand for Keurig's machines and coffee pods seems to be cooling. Last August, the company reported pod sales were down one per cent from the year ago quarter, while sales of brewing machines and accessories fell 26 per cent.

And the pods were recently banned in all government buildings in Hamburg, Germany. 

A Keurig home-brewing machine

A Keurig home-brewing machine makes coffee by the cup (CBC)

Jens Kerstan, the senator for the Hamburg Ministry for Environment and Energy, helped orchestrate the ban. 

"That is part of our plan to base our public spending much more on ecological aspects," he told CBC Radio's As It Happens. "We want to avoid spending public money on products that are bad for environment."

Environmentalist happy to see sales dip

The Hamburg ban and the drop in coffee pod sales are welcome news for Lindsay Coulter.

She offers environmentally-friendly consumer tips on behalf of the David Suzuki Foundation in Vancouver. 

"This could be one of those things where it's a tipping point that maybe spurs some people... into really analyzing what other single-use disposables that they're using," Coulter said.

Lindsay Coulter

Lindsay Coulter, an environmental advocate with the David Suzuki Foundation in Vancouver. (davidsuzuki.org)

Other single-use disposables include products such as diapers or paper coffee cups.

Coulter said the irony of the coffee pod craze is that it was born out of desire to reduce another kind of waste.

"I think a lot of people started to worry about wasting making a pot or half a pot of coffee and then pouring the rest out and wasting it," she said. "Companies said, 'Hey, we can stop you wasting coffee!' So I almost think that this problem of garbage and creating more recycling was born out of people's attempt to make less drip coffee waste."

Coffee companies try to go green

Now there are attempts to make the pods less damaging to the environment.

Keurig Green Mountain has pledged to make all of its K-Cup packs recyclable by 2020. In Canada, One Coffee produces pods which it claims are 99 per cent biodegradable, and Club Coffee has emerged with a compostable version.

Starbucks Green Mountain

A Green Mountain Coffee single-serving brewing cup in a Keurig machine. (The Associated Press)

Metro Vancouver recently announced they are accepting K-Cups in recycling bins, although there are multiple steps required in the recycling process. Before throwing the disposable cups into bins, the tops should be thrown into the trash and coffee grinds dumped in the compost.

But these developments still aren't selling Coulter on the coffee pods.

"Recycling feels good and probably using a biodegradable pod would make you feel better, too — especially if it had fair trade, organic, bird-friendly coffee in it. But I still think it's just going a bit too far and it's unnecessary and costly," she said.

Coulter would rather we all ditched the machines and made coffee the old fashioned way. 

The problem, as Carpenter explained, is that making the process of getting our caffeine fix more tedious is an uphill battle.

"We love caffeine, we want it daily," he said. 

"We want it to be tasty, and yet we want it to be convenient. [It's] part of the reason that K-Cups have become so popular, you know? Whatever their environmental costs are."

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