Since Keurig’s K-Cup coffee system arrived on the market in the late ‘90s, single-serve coffee makers have exploded in popularity. Today, one in three Americans say they own a single-cup coffee brewing system.
While the convenience and variety afforded by single-serve coffee systems is celebrated by many, the appliance’s darker side—the mountains of unrecyclable waste that result from its use—is equally abhorred by environmentalists and others concerned about the impacts of on-demand coffee. To put this waste into perspective, John Sylvan, the system’s creator, has himself estimated that a single K-Cup machine can create ten times more waste than a conventional drip brewer, and in fact now notes regretting his invention.
The environmental cost of landfilling or incinerating all of that valuable plastic has been widely discussed, but one element which has received less attention is the loss of valuable coffee grounds, which if collected, could create millions of tons of nutrient rich compost. Rich in nitrogen (energy used by bacteria to break down food waste), coffee grounds are a valuable addition to a compost pile and can even be added directly to indoor plants and gardens, if done properly.
Back in 2013, roughly 10 billion individual K-Cup packs were sold. At about 2 tablespoons of ground coffee per K-Cup, we’re talking about 20 billion tablespoons, or over 67 million gallons of waste coffee grounds every year! Yikes. That’s a lot of waste and a lot of valuable compost.
Fortunately, more and more sustainable alternatives have been popping up on the market that allow you to keep using your single-serve system (and enjoying that hot cup of coffee when you want it) while reducing plastic waste and capturing the used coffee grounds for compost. Some of these ideas will likely even save you money considering that the most conservative estimates out there show that K-Cup coffee costs two to five times as much as regular drip coffee.
Here are five greener single-serve alternatives worth checking out.
1. Reusable Filters: If you already own one of these coffee machines, switching to a reusable filter is the best choice you can make. Keurig’s own reusable filter is a great option — it now works in all of Keurig’s machines. Other popular reusable filters are Eko-Brew and Fill ‘n Save, but check their compatibility lists to see if they will work with your machine.
2. Recyclable K-Cups: Although Keurig says all of its K-Cups will be recyclable by 2020, and there are other recyclable products available, recycling them is not always easy. First, you need to make sure the material (often #5 plastic or aluminum) is actually recyclable in your area. Then you have to disassemble the cup because the tops, filters and coffee grounds can’t be recycled. And even if it does make it into the recycling, there’s no guarantee it’s actually going to get recycled. For more information, Consumer Reports has a thorough guide to recycling coffee capsules.
3. Biodegradable and Compostable K-Cups: San Francisco Bay Gourmet Coffee now offers OneCup pods that are compostable in commercial composting facilities. They are currently available only at Costco. Club Coffee developed PurPod100, another commercially compostable pod available through these brands . Cameron’s Coffee sells coffee in EcoPods, which they say are compostable commercially and in home compost. Again, most of these options are only feasible if you have commercial composting services in your area. Some pods might be labeled “biodegradable,” but don’t be fooled into thinking those are much better for the environment; they will likely take a very long time to break down and won’t break down well enough composting facilities.
4. All-in-one K-Cup-free single-serve systems: If you don’t already own a Keurig system, there are several K-Cup-free systems that brew single-serve coffee on demand. Hamilton Beach’s Scoop Single-Serve Coffee Maker brews up to 14 ounces directly into your mug and has a handy coffee scoop that you fill and drop into in the machine. Cuisinart makes a Coffee On Demand 12-Cup Programmable Coffee Maker that has reservoirs for water and coffee that let you make coffee on demand, from one up to 12 cups at a time.
5. French Press Coffee: If it’s single-serve coffee you want, and you’re willing to do just a little more work than pressing a button, then always the reliable French press. You simply dump in coffee and hot water, wait for 3-4 minutes, then press down the plunger. There are several single-serve French presses on the market these days, including travel versions that combine the press and mug in one. The AeroPress is another popular single-serve coffee making tool.
There’s no question that on-demand coffee is a nice convenience, but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of the environment. Once you’ve made the switch, make sure to compost those grounds! Here’s a handy guide on various ways to compost and use coffee grounds. For once, you can have your coffee and even “eat it” too!
This is an updated version of an older article.