The truth about single-serve coffee will make you cringe.
Twelve billion. That’s the staggering number of single serve coffee pods sold in 2015. It’s no exaggeration to say that single serve coffee has totally revolutionized the at home coffee market in just over a decade.
In 2000, single serve coffee was almost unheard of in North America. Today, industry estimates have a single serve machine on a third of American kitchen counters and coffee pods accounting for 40% of all ground coffee sales in the U.S.—the vast majority of that are K-Cups made for Keurig brewers. The speed with which the format took off was astonishing.
People love the convenience, variety and ease with which they can quickly brew a fresh cup of coffee in their home. But in the last little while a growing number of people have been asking out loud that all-important question: what about the environment? While concerns about used coffee pods ending up in landfill have been around for years, 2015 felt a bit like a turning point for the industry.
At the start of the year, a mysterious video called “Kill the K-Cup” appeared on YouTube and quickly went viral. The short film depicted giant aliens made of plastic coffee pods invading the planet. Subtle, it wasn’t. In case viewers missed the point, in the notes below the video the creators presented a list of concerns about K-Cups: In 2013 enough K-Cups were sold to circle the planet more than 10 times (that number has of course gone up since then). The vast majority of recycling operations don’t accept the pods. Recycling facilities need clean, separated materials to sort into clean streams in order to repurpose. These pods are mixed components of plastic, foil and organic that are not easy separated.
A few months later in a much-discussed article for the influential magazine The Atlantic about the environmental concerns of the K-Cup, John Sylvan, inventor of the Keurig coffee machine, told the writer James Hamblin he doesn’t own a Keurig anymore. “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it,” he said of his invention. “No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable.” Well, that’s not entirely true anymore.
Keurig is planning to launch their recyclable K-Cup® capsule, but unfortunately the roll-out will take time and the full transitionwon’t be complete until 2020. However, an easily recyclable K-style capsule option already exists; enabling consumers to reduce the waste going into landfill by 95%.
Mother Parkers has been in the coffee business for more than 100 years and has grown into the fourth largest roaster in North America. The company has always embraced cutting edge technology and product innovation to produce the high quality coffee it is famous for. That predisposition towards reinvention and original thinking also explains how Mother Parkers created its RealCupÒ capsules and became one of the first mass-market coffee companies to get serious about addressing the very real environmental concerns surrounding single serve coffee.
There were two primary motivations behind the creation of the RealCupâ capsule format, says Brian Miller, director of business development at Mother Parkers.
“Taste and Waste.” “First, we knew that a lot of consumers were unsatisfied with the quality of the coffee coming from single serve options. For this we invented the FlavorMaxä filter to bring the full bodied authentic taste they love in the convenience of single serve. But secondly, we knew right away that we wanted to address the waste that the format caused. Sustainability has always been built into the DNA of the company and incorporated into all the areas of the supply chain. This includes, activity at origin such as the Water Wise program in Ethiopia to manufacturing and distribution decisions that reduce energy use. However, a very visible post-consumer issue still remained with the capsules. While many thought that most consumers didn’t care about sustainability in the single serve world, we disagreed and saw a lot of people who love the convenience and the variety of single serve but are very uncomfortable with the waste that it caused.” Says Paul Yang, Mother Parkers’ manager of packaging development and sustainability. From here the company started by researching the needs of the recycling industry and heard loud and clear that they need clean, separated materials.
Now the challenge was to make a cup that delivered the authentic beverage experience but enabled consumers to easily separate its components. “We wanted to make sure that we didn’t sacrifice any of the first goal “taste” as we dealt with the “waste” which meant delivering the same freshness, the same taste and the same compatibility with the system. And easy separation is exactly what they created with the RealCupÒ format. After the brewing process is complete, users can simply wait for the pod to cool, click a tab on the cup, pull the filter and lid away, dump the wet grounds into their municipal compost bin or backyard garden and the cup is “clean” and ready for recycling wherever No. 6 plastics are accepted. Fully 95% of the capsule by weight can now be diverted with just the lid and filter going into landfill.
While the end product is easy for consumers, there were lots of technical challenges for us to overcome in development, says Miller.
They found that balance. Is it a perfect solution? John Sylvan might say no. Mother Parkers doesn’t believe it is either and is already working on ways to further improve.
But we all have to start somewhere and it is absolutely better than what we’ve been doing the last 10 years, dumping billions and billions and billions of plastic cups directly into landfill. We simply don’t have to do that anymore.