Kill the K-Cup II: The Recycling

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A TerraCycle coffee recycling zero waste box at the University of Ottawa's Office of Campus Susainability

A bunch of friends have shared the K-Cup horror movie with me recently. I getting the feeling that K-Cups are making people feel a little helpless. I mean great coffee that's prepared perfectly every time.... vs huge waste generation that is, in its own little way, killing the planet.


I recently embarked on the Waste Bucket Challenge. I was challenged by our 2014 Free Store coordinators and I have been trying to reduce my waste consumption for the past couple of weeks. I think that one of the only things keeping me going is the fact that I recycle my K-Cups. That's right, they can actually be recycled.

I think that the first thing you need to know is that my office is equipped with a Keurig coffee maker. When the machine appeared in our space three years ago, I wasn't crazy about the amount of waste it produced; nevertheless, the machine grew in popularity in my office until eventually everyone was getting their coffee from the machine (sadly, even me).


At first, the company we contracted to take care of our machine was sending the discarded pods off to a "waste to energy" project in New Jersey. Again, I wasn't crazy about this idea either, but it was at least better than sending it to landfill. Well, last year the company stopped the collection of the pods and we had a mounting waste problem on our hands.

Eventually, Brigitte, our waste diversion coordinator, found TerraCycle, a company that helps you recycle hard to recycle things. As luck wold have it, TerraCycle has a coffee capsule recycling program that you can buy into. We jumped on the opportunity and now we collect and ship our coffee capsules off to TerraCycle, who transform them into durable goods like park benches. The program is becoming so popular that you can now buy a zero waste box at Staples.

K-cups being recycled at uOttawa


Now I don't want to you thinking that recycling these K-Cups is the ultimate solution. There are still problems associated with recycling these materials. First, it is expensive. We pay $160 (taxes included) to send a giant box for recycling. You can get smaller sizes starting at $50. This is way more expensive than what it costs for typical recycling, like plastic bottles or newspaper.

Second, there is a hefty carbon penalty for transporting all that waste back and forth. The K-Cups are shipped to TerraCycle and a full box can weigh over 50 pounds. I usually empty the contents of a K-Cup into the compost but the remainder still weighs something.

A terracycle zero waste coffee capsule recycling box at uOttawa

And finally there is the problem of complacency that could make people think that recycling these K-Cups solves the problem. Ultimately the K-Cup is an inefficient creation that is wildly convenient. But each capsle represents a bunch of plastic that doesn't need to be there. If I had my way we would invest in on of those refillable pods; but alas, the company we are dealing with doesn't have that option... yet.

~jON - campus sustainability manager

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