Canadian coffee pod companies are scrambling to serve customers a guilt-free cup of java.
The explosive growth of those single-serve coffee machines is fuelling concern about what they leave behind: billions of plastic coffee pods piling up in landfills worldwide.
Some companies invested in the booming business are now exploring recyclable or compostable solutions to appease shamed customers.
While the disposable, single-serve pod offers an easy and convenient way to brew a cup of coffee, there appears to be no easy environmental remedy — at least not yet — for all that waste.
The recycling solution
Mother Parkers in Mississauga Ont., is upfront about the hardships it's facing to produce a foolproof recyclable coffee pod.
"If it was simple, it would be done and it wouldn't be an issue," says the coffee company's director of business development, Brian Miller.
Keurig, which dominates the single-serve market in North America, says its ubiquitous K-Cups will be fully recyclable — by 2020.
Mother Parkers hopes to beat Keurig by four years. It aims to package all of its single-serve coffee brands in a recyclable EcoCup by early 2016. It's already selling EcoCup teas.
"We see consumers are starting to think it's very important," says Miller.
'Just because it's complex doesn't mean it's not worth solving.' — Brian Miller, Mother Parkers Tea & Coffee
But there are still some big hurdles for EcoCups.
They're made out of polystyrene, a petroleum-based plastic. Currently, just over half of Canadian communities can recycle the product. And some of those facilities are having trouble managing that, because the tiny cups can get stuck in sorting machines.
The EcoCup also produces waste. The lid and filter have to be separated from the cup and go in the trash.
But Miller says the company is committed to solving all the kinks. Its goals include a more widely recyclable cup later next year and a zero-waste pod down the road.
"Just because it's complex doesn't mean it's not worth solving," he says.
The composting solution
On the West Coast, the Canadian company Canterbury Coffee is brewing up a different solution: a compostable coffee pod.
Currently, the company's OneCoffee capsule offers a ring and lid made of compostable materials, including a corn-based plastic.
But the mesh filter cup still goes in the trash. The company claims it's six months away from manufacturing a fully compostable pod.
At that point, "You take that entire thing and pop it in your green bin and that's it," says Victoria Gray, Canterbury Coffee's director of marketing.
But not all municipalities offer a composting program.
And the pods, which contain organic, fair trade coffee, will also cost consumers extra — up to 25 cents more per cup.
But Gray believes customers will buy into a product that can offer zero waste.
"It ends up going into compost that goes back into the earth. To us, that's a win all around," she says.
The ready solution
An immediate solution is on the market, but it could cost you.
The private company TerraCycle will disassemble and recycle industry leader Keurig's K-Cups for a fee.
City-funded recycling depots don't want your K-Cups. "The municipalities just shy away because there's so many components to separate," says Vanessa Farquharson, communications manager for TerraCycle Canada.
But TerraCycle is willing to do the job if Keurig consumers buy a special box, fill it with pods, and send it to the company to be recycled. The non-reusable boxes start at $52.99 for the small size, which holds 250 K-Cups.
TerraCycle has partnerships with other single-serve machine makers, where the companies actually pay for the recycling, not the customer. But it has not yet been able to secure a similar deal with Keurig.
The cold turkey solution
One free and easy solution for guilty single-serve users is to just quit the habit. That's what Phil Anderson has done.
He bought a Keurig machine to try out different types of coffee. But he's selling it on Craigslist because his spouse told him, "That machine has got to go," he says.
'That machine has got to go.' — Phil Anderson, Keurig owner
"My wife, who is an environmentalist, starting telling me stories about how environmentally incorrect it was and how much waste it produced," says the Toronto art gallery director.
And perhaps others, too, are trying to quit or at least not take up the habit. Anderson's machine has been on the market for six weeks with no takers yet.