The Keurig Conundrum: What to Do With All Those Pods

Mj 618_348_the keurig conundrum pods and the price of convenience
Adrian Moser / Bloomberg News / Gett Images

What is the biggest trend in at-home coffee today? You'd be forgiven for thinking it's the proliferation of single origin beans, the use of moka pots, the rise of the at-home cold brew, or ever more high-tech espresso makers. Instead, it's something that was originally created for the office: The Keurig pod brewer. According to the 2014 National Coffee Association trend report, 29 percent of Americans use a single-cup brewer daily, up 9 percent over 2013, and by far the market leader is Keurig Green Mountain based in Vermont.

To give you perspective on the growth of this trend, Keurig sold 3 million coffee pods in 2010; last year they sold 9.8 billion of them. There has not been a product embraced this widely since the early days of Red Bull. The trend is not likely to slow down anytime soon, given that one in four Americans said recently they are planning on buying a pod brewer in the next year. The growth has become a huge problem — namely, it's created the biggest new waste stream in recent years. Just take those 9.8 billion pods: Stack them end-to-end, and they would wrap around the earth at the equator twelve times.

No one was ready for this. "They basically created a waste stream that caught everyone off guard, no one knows how to handle them so they throw them away," says Murray Carpenter, author of Caffeinated who first reported on the environmental issues they posed in 2010.

While technically these pods are recyclable, few actually do this because "you have to break them into separate parts," says Sandy Yusen, director of community relations and corporate communications for Keurig Green Mountain. "I am sure there will be people aware of the recycling options and we hope they will be willing to take time to break the pods down."

Mj 390_294_blue bottle moka pot

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In reality, the pods are glued shut to keep out oxygen, and the basket is made from plastic #7, which many American cities do not recycle. Keurig has pledged to roll out a completely recyclable pod by 2020, and also spent an estimated $55.7 million on social and environmental programs last-year. In the meantime, they continue to grow, including a recently-unveiled, 10-year deal with Coca Cola to create a system that also turns out cold drinks.

The pod's inventor, John Sylvan, says that he regrets having ever made the system "I created the system for offices," he told Men's Journal. "It’s a good cup of coffee, but not that good. Convenience seems to trump all." But something good did come out of it. "I now have a solar company to help pay back the damage my invention has caused instead of turning out billions of those pods," Sylvan says, "I am helping turn out billions of BTUs of free energy."

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