The Attack of the Coffee Pods — and how to Defend Yourself From Them

K-cupsIt isn’t often that a coffee pod earns its own viral parody, but Keurig and its K-Cup coffee pods have been controversial for a number of years….and deservedly so. The company and its coffee pods have been accused of being unsafe, environmentally irresponsible, overly expensive and anti-competitive. Keurig (later purchased by Green Mountain Coffee) introduced its patented coffee pods in 1998 and, until September 2012, it held the patents for single-serve coffee pods for Keurig brewing machines, commonly known as K-cups . As of 2015, these pods represent over 26% of the U.S. market for ground coffee.

According to a survey by the National Coffee Association, nearly 1 in 5 adults drank single-cup-brewed coffee yesterday, making it the second most popular way to brew after the traditional drip methods—and far more popular than espresso machines.  And while drip coffee-maker sales are stagnant, pod-machine sales have increased six-fold since 2008. When the K-Cup design patents expired in 2012 the market was suddenly flooded with off-brand competitors. In response, Keurig introduced a “second-generation (2.0) machine” that would only function with Keurig-brand cups, effectively killing consumer efforts to use their own coffee pods with Keurig machines.   Consumer response has been mixed and, in some cases, consumers have ingeniously fought back.  More pointedly, the inventor of the K-Cup was recently quoted as questioning the wisdom of using coffee pods.   But the questions that perist are:

1. Are Keurig (and other coffee pods) unsafe?

2.  Are use of coffee pods environmentally irresponsible?

3. Are they overly expensive to use?

4.  What alternatives are available to savvy consumers?

Are Coffee Pods Unsafe?

Is BPA safe?  (BPA is the acronym for Bisphenol A – a common ingredient in many plastics used to handle food and water.)  When the reputable Mayo Clinic says “it isn’t clear” and recommends avoiding BPA, then you’ve got a real issue. Oh, by the way, there’s BPA in Keurig’s K-Cups. But there’s more than just BPA. The company admits to using “plastic #7” in its coffee pods.  This is a mix of plastics.  One of the issues raised by plastic #7 is that it contains polystyrene, a derivative of styrene. NRDC warns it is especially worrisome for workers. A possible carcinogen, styrene can wreak havoc on the nervous systems of those handling it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The chemical also shows up in tobacco smoke and home copy machines, and in the styrofoam used in food containers.   For consumers who are sensitive to plastics or chemicals used in producing them, the K-Cups can be quite hazardous.    The numerous on-line complaints about allergic reactions to K-Cups are serious enough to warrant your attention before you use them.

Another big issue is that Keurig water reservoirs are not removable or drainable, so removing mold and other bacteria from them is difficult if not impossible.  What’s worse is that water heated in the Keurig is not getting hot enough to kill all microbes that are living in your coffee system. For that to happen, the water would need to reach boiling temperature and stay there for one minute.   As a result, even if you aren’t sensitive to plastics or BPA, the mold and bacteria in the single-serve coffee machines may make you sick.For that reason, most health advocates recommend the use of stainless steel reusable filters and single-serve machines that can be easily cleaned.   (an alternative is to heat up vinegar-water on a weekly basis….but that’s a pain!)

Are use of Coffee Pods Environmentally Irresponsible?

The environmental impact of Keurig’s unrecyclable pods has been vigorously debated in the last few years.  A look at the numbers gives you a sens of the problem: In 2012, Green Mountain sold about 5 billion K-cups. That means several billion single-use foil, paper, and plastic capsules went straight into landfills…and our oceans. Plastic coffee pods aren’t biodegradable. The multi-material structure fuses several components, which is “incredibly difficult or impossible” for recycling plants to process. But that’s only one piece of the problem. Coffee pods are too small to be captured by most facilities that sort by size and density. And depending on the type of plastic used, many communities many not even accept coffee pods for recycling. Coffee pod manufacturers are aware of the issue, and have made some attempts at greenwashing. Unfortunately, the solutions sound about as effective as plugging a leak in the Hoover Dam with a band-aid. Reusable pods are available, but that involves fussing with grounds and clean-up, the very activities single-use pods were designed to avoid in the first place.   Moreover, as discussed more below, the reusable cups have generated mixed results.

Keurig Green Mountain is apparently quite secretive about how many K-Cups the company actually puts into the world every year. The best estimates say the Keurig pods buried in 2014 would actually circle the Earth not 10.5 times, but more than 12 times. The company told Atlantic Magazine that it sold 9.8 billion Keurig-brewed portion packs—which include the new multiple-cup pods.Contrary to Keurig’s public claims, their coffee pods (K-Cups) are not recyclable.   The vast majority of K-Cups are made up of a #7 composite plastic, which is nonrecyclable in most places. And for the small few that are recyclable, the aluminum lid must be separated from the cup, which also must be emptied of its wet grounds, for the materials to make it through the recycling process. Even then, chances are the pod won’t be recycled because it’s too small.  An ingenious and well-produced viral video attacked Keurig’s environmentally-challenged K-pods:

In response, Keurig released a sustainability report announcing that the company plans to make all coffee pods recyclable by 2020, among other ecofriendly efforts. The company says it’s evaluating the type of plastic used in the cups, exploring potential biodegradable and compostable packaging, and coming up with an easier way for customers to easily prepare them for recycling.

However, there are some coffee pods that are recyclable.  For example, Nespresso’s lid and pod is made entirely from aluminum. A Canadian brand, Canterbury Coffee, makes a version that it says is 92 percent biodegradable (everything save for the nylon filter can break down).   Perhaps the most environmentally responsible option is to buy reusable pods for old Keurig machines (but not new ones).  However, reviews on these refillable or reusable pods have been mixed, with many consumers reporting that the quality of the coffee produced in reusable cups is lacking and that the cups don’t last very long.

Coffee Quality

Buzzfeed’s take on single-serve coffee machines is “pods are to good coffee as fast food chicken nuggets are to actual chicken”   We agree.   Coffee pods limit your ability to control the quality and freshnes of coffee.  Moreover, you can’t be sure that the beans are pestide-free or are really organic, as most coffee pods are blends of various coffees. As to freshness, the National Coffee Association warns that coffee beans lose their freshness almost immediately after roasting, and recommends buying in smaller amounts—enough to last a week or two. When coffee is ground, the beans get stale even faster. Ground coffee can only stay truly fresh for a few days. Unfortunately, the beans in coffee pods are roasted, ground, and packaged, then wait in warehouses and on grocery shelves for 3-5 months before reaching consumers. Vacuum sealing and nitrogen keep the coffee from oxidizing, but the grounds still lose the flavorful (and volatile) oils, in the form of CO2. Open the pod and the flavor escapes.   Thus, in order to preserve coffee quality, it is usually best to rely upon reusable pods filled with your own choice of freshly ground coffee.

How Much More are you Paying to Use Coffee Pods?

How much do you normally pay for a pound of coffee beans?   $8? $10?  $15?    If you are using coffee pods, you might try $50 per pound.   According to the NY Times,the Nespresso Arpeggio costs $5.70 for 10 espresso capsules, while the Folgers Black Silk blend for a K-Cup brewed-coffee machine is $10.69 for 12 pods. But that Nespresso capsule contains 5 grams of coffee, so it costs about $51 a pound. And the Folgers, with 8 grams per capsule, works out to more than $50 a pound.

Coffee pod advocates argue that if you measure coffee on a per-cup basis, the pods are more economic because of less waste.  But really, their strongest argument is that you pay more for convenience.  So how much is that “convenience premium”?   Time Magazine took a look at this issue.    It found that a cost of $40 per pound (as calculated by Atlantic Magazine) is probably closer to the mark.  But it also notes that the cost of the single-serve coffee makers are substantially higher than drip machines.  In fact, it concluded that most of the cost comparisons done find that K-Cups (and other comparable coffee pods) cost two or three times more per cup compared with traditionally brewed coffee.  But why trust others’ analysis;  try it yourself using a handy coffee maker analysis spreadsheet.

Reasonable Alternatives to Single-Server Machines

“I don’t have one. They’re kind of expensive to use,” This quote is attributed to John Sylvan, the inventor of Keurig K-Cups. “Plus it’s not like drip coffee is tough to make.”  We agree;  the single-serve coffee makers and their inglorious pods are convenient, but the premium you pay and the environmental/health impacts are daunting.   And Keurig’s recent effort to limit customer choice on its new machines is downright distasteful.  Yes, a number of blogs proposed a number of other work-arounds of the newly-created Keurig obstacles. And a video, produced by The Verge, pushed back on  Keurig’s digital rights management (DRM) that blocks cheaper, third-party pods and also prohibits the use of older or non-branded pods new Keurig machines.  But still, the principle of it sucks.  To have to cheat in order to protect yourself from Keurig’s greedy K-Cup shtupp makes things worse. Two key points to consider, before you decide to go with a single-serve machine:

1. You will always be limited in your choice of coffees. When you grind your own beans, you have a choice of hundreds of coffees, from stores and online, But with a single-server brewer, you are limited by the number of coffees unless you spend additional money to buy reusable pods.

2. Each cup of coffee will cost you more. In other words, if you want to watch your pennies, then buying coffee beans for a traditional drip brewer will be more economical (and tastier).

That said, there are five leading brands of single cup coffee maker. The Keurig, Nespresso, Verismo and Tassimo and iCoffee Opus. None of the single-serve options have what it takes to get the very best from quality beans;  they pretty much just offer convenience and average coffee flavor.  We don’t recommend any of them, but there are certainly advantages and disadvantages associated with each of the five. It is worth shopping around before you choose one — and consider the availability of generic reuseable pods for any model that you consider.

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