Impassioned: sustainability, marketing + wellbeing.

Sustainable Solution for The Coffee Pod Waste Problem

Posted on Aug 29, 2013 in Solutions, Sustainability | No Comments

Yesterday I read Margaret Badore’s Treehugger post about the ever-growing problem of individual use, single-serving coffee pods, which is creating a massive waste problem:

Rancaño’s “back-of-the-envelope arithmetic” conservatively estimates that 966 million pounds per year of waste from coffee pods end up in landfills.”

Margaret wrote about how recyclable pods aren’t an effective solution to the problem, given some realities about recycling (size of the cups, for example).  And that assumes that consumers are actually recycling these pods.  Most consumers – particularly these consumers who opt for the uber-convenient coffee pod option to being with – will never take the time to dump the contents of these pods into a bin and then recycle the remaining, “uncontaminated” plastic pods.

slow pour coffee

The fact that the adoption of these individual cup coffeemakers is such a strong trend (12% of residences now use them!) and at the same time the slow coffee movement is growing (think individual pour-over cups), is fascinating and represents the dichotomy in American consumer culture.  On one hand you have a population willing to sacrifice quality and taste for convenience and waste and on the other you have a population willing to spend excessive time and money on the quest for the perfect cup of coffee.

This is a product (and problem) that has irked me for years.  Margaret’s post today inspired me to finally write, proposing a solution.

Of course the true solution would be to get rid of individual coffee pods altogether.  But we are in far too deep and this point and being that convenience is one of the greatest value propositions in modern society these pods aren’t going anywhere soon.  So now what?

How about composting?  Industrial composting, that is.  And individual coffee pod manufacturers working together with industrial compost service providers and waste management firms.  Perhaps there is even room for a new service provider to enter the scene and facilitate this model.  Regardless, it has to be a whole-system approach (has any truly sustainable solution to any problem ever not been a whole-system approach?).  Here’s the model:

  • Individual cup manufacturers start manufacturing the physical cup not from plastic, but from some plant-based material (perhaps they consult the manufacturers of Greenware).  Certainly the hot water brew poses a challenge but there’s got to be a way to work around that.
  • Manufacturers start packaging the individual cups in boxes designed to hold used pods.  These new boxes are reusable and serve as the shipping container as well.  When a customer orders refills, they are packaged in this box, which the customer then uses to collect used pods.  Maybe the box is designed to fit in an average sized freezer for collecting used pods (avoiding countertop waste and the growing smell of damp coffee pods for however long it takes to fill a box enough to ship back).  And maybe they’re made from upcycled plastic coffee pods, to make a dent in the waste problem directly!  Customers send the used pods back in the boxes and the company then gets them to the composting facility (see the next bullet).
      • One model for inspiration is Preserve, who brilliantly packages their toothbrushes (which are made from recycled yogurt cups, by the way) in “Mail Back Pack” plastic sleeves that also serve as prepaid return envelopes when the toothbrush is past it’s prime.  I’d also recommend Celery Design Collaborative, who uses their “ngised” (“designing backwards”) philosophy to create packaging that is informed by function and sustainability.  I once saw a presentation on the packaging Celery designed for an efficient lightbulb – the recycled cardboard box collapsed and folded into a modern-style lampshade.  I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat with excitement, the design was pure genius.  They truly think about the whole lifecycle.  Not that everyone wants a cardboard lampshade, but you get the idea.
  • Manufacturers would need to partner with an industrial composting service provider, who would receive the pods at scale and break them down in their facilities, keeping the pod waste out of landfills.  Maybe this is an opportunity compost service providers can approach coffee pod manufacturers with to help get their startup off the ground.
  • We can’t forget the important role that communication plays in this process.  The first key to making something like this happen is to make a sustainable disposable option convenient – the second is to inform the consumer about why it’s necessary, what the benefits are and how it works, enabling them to become part of the solution.  The packaging needs to include messaging on the extent of the waste problem that coffee pods generate, for example.  This approach also becomes a marketing program.  Imagine the goodwill companies can generate with responsible consumers by adopting these practices.

The externalities of this model could be significant, too.  Consider the scale – and the dependable demand – this could bring to composting companies.  It could easily be enough to get some more composting programs off the ground.  Or the end-product that results; coffee is supposed to be great for compost.

With any product, it is the responsibility of the manufacturer to enable its customers, whether residential or commercial, to find a sustainable way to dispose of the product at the end of its lifecycle and close the loop.  There is no doubt that the single-serving coffee industry has failed to do this in a big way.  It’s time for the industry to take responsibility and be accountable for solving the problem they have created.  Which company will be the first to lead the charge?

Here’s a longer article with a much more in-depth report about the single-serving coffee industry and the problems.

What do you think?  What holes are there in this idea?  How can we improve it to deliver a really effective, sustainable solution to this problem?  Do share!

I have many more thoughts about this and if anyone is interested in executing this idea, let me know – I’d love to talk more.  Thanks for reading!

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