Ask the experts and many of them will tell you the same thing: the single-serve coffee category is hotter than freshly brewed java. Fueled by convenience, the time-saving system that lets users prepare drinks by the cup is gaining popularity worldwide. Yet, since their inception, single-serve cups and capsules have had to dodge the criticism that they’re inherently bad for the environment.
Since single-serve capsules are discarded after each use, the brewing method is not as green as preparing drinks with ground coffee or espresso. And, we’re talking about a lot of cups and capsules. According to the National Coffee Association, single-serve coffee is the fastest-growing sector of the home market, as well as the second most popular brewing method after conventional drip coffee makers.
So, what’s an environmentally conscious coffee lover to do? Must eco-concerns be set aside in favor of fast, convenient, and reliable drinks by the cup? Fortunately, leading single-serve manufacturers are addressing the issue head on. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR), the maker of K-Cups for Keurig, conducted a life cycle analysis to assess the environmental impact of its single-serve packs.
"The most significant environmental impacts are associated with materials production/packaging, the use phase, and the coffee cultivation phase for the impact categories examined."
"End-of-Life (EoL) is a small part of the K-Cup® pack life cycle, representing only 5% of GHG emissions. EoL represents only 1% of the energy demand, and 1% of the acidification potential."
"The K-Cup® brewing system uses less energy in an office environment than a traditional batch brewing system. This translates into reduced environmental impact in all impact categories over the entire life cycle."
According to the study, even though the end-of-life cycle -- when a K-Cup is used and discarded -- is the most visible, it actually only accounts for only 5% of the potential global warming output. Nevertheless, GMCR has put together a program to allow workplace customers in the contiguous U.S. to collect and return spent K-Cups for composting and energy from waste processing. The Grounds to Grow On program is estimated to have recovered 4.1 million K-Cup packs and composted over 85,000 pounds of ground coffee in the same year. The plastic from spent K-Cups saved approximately 139 kilowatt hours.
Want to take matters into your own hands, give the Keurig My K-Cup Filter Basket a try. It is a reusable filter that lets you brew with any ground pre-ground coffee you choose. No hassle, no mess, and no waste.
At Nespresso, the talk centers around recycling as well as developing more sustainable aluminum for their single-serve capsules. In the U.S., the company has capsule collection systems in place in cities with Nespresso boutiques including: New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Nespresso has also launched the AluCycle, partnering with mining, refining, retrieval, recycling organizations to improve the sustainability of aluminum. The company has also teamed up with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to promote environmentally sound aluminum practices.
Taking its commitment one step further, Nespresso has equipped some of its single-serve machines with an ECO button, which will automatically turn the machine off after 30 minutes of inactivity to conserve energy. The feature is available on the latest generation of the CitiZ machines.
Illy iperEspresso fans can take heart in knowing that their capsules are made from recycled plastic. The company is working on a method to allow consumers to open, clean, and recycle their capsules.
While single-serve systems may not be as eco-friendly as other more traditional brewing methods, the leading manufacturers are taking notes and continually making improvements to their products. Don’t write them off just yet.