How to Use K-Cups, Guilt-Free

Whether you’re hooked on the convenience or the flavor of single-cup coffee machines, here’s a way to drink them more responsibly.
(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Jan 19, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Melissa Rayworth is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has also written for the Associated Press, Salon and Babble.

Maybe it happened over the holidays: Someone gave you one of those coffee makers that take single-use pods. Before you know it, you’ve got an entire kitchen drawer filled with tiny plastic cups that turn into caramel lattes, peppermint mochas, or steaming cups of espresso at the touch of a button.

Coffee nirvana.

Except every time you drop one of those empty pods in the trash, you cringe a little. Several companies, including Nespresso and Tassimo, sponsor recycling for their products in the U.S. and U.K.—but Keurig doesn’t sponsor any recycling. These things are ending up in landfills at a stunning pace. One oft-cited stat estimates that if you laid the Keurig K-Cups sold last year end-to-end, they would wrap around the planet more than 10 times.

If only those plastic pods could fly.

Green Mountain Keurig recently announced it sold $816 million worth of K-Cups in the third quarter of 2015 (that’s just 13 weeks). These and so many millions more introduce unrecyclable, nonbiodegradable waste into landfills each year, an ecological downgrade from the French press or the old paper filter. Even the creator of the pods has said he wishes he hadn’t invented them.

RELATED: Americans Love K-Cups, but Their Creator Regrets Inventing Them

There is hope: One Canadian company is making progress in designing fully compostable cups for Keurig machines. G-KUP inventor Darren Footz expects to begin production on these pods in the first quarter of 2016, selling them to coffee roasters and manufacturers. The development process has taken time, he says, because creating pods from readily renewable sources that survive the high-temperature brewing cycle and yield tasty coffee was tough.

“Although our initial tests have been successful, we want to make sure that G-KUP meets our customer’s needs and exceeds current industry standards,” Footz says. “We need to make sure it’s done right.”

MORE WAYS YOU CAN: Shrink Your Waste

In the meantime, the millions of people who still buy conventional coffee pods need to do something other than pitch them in the trash. If you’re one of them, here are five ways to mitigate the impact in 2016:

Get Creative Help
The crafty upcyclers at TerraCycle can turn tough-to-recycle items into usable everyday items—like circuit boards into clipboards or Capri Sun pouches into backpacks. They can also recycle any brand of single-use coffee pod or capsule. Collect the capsules at home or at work, and then send away for prepaid mailing labels for sending your capsules to TerraCycle.

(Photos: Facebook; Twitter)

Using one of its Zero-Waste boxes—a 10-by-10-by-18-inch box costs $78—you can mail hundreds of used coffee pods without having to rinse or disassemble them.

If that price sounds steep, consider this: TerraCycle spokesman Albe Zakes says buying a box adds 5 to 15 cents to the cost of each pod, depending on the size of the box—pennies that many Keurig users are willing to spend to offset environmental damage. (Disclosure: TerraCycle was featured on the television show Human Resources, which aired on our sister network, Pivot.)

Dissect and Recycle
Recycle a Cup is a device that cuts up and separates the parts of a K-Cup for recycling. Once the pieces have been separated, the coffee and paper filter can be composted and the aluminum can be recycled.

(Photo: Facebook)

Even with a gadget or your own home dissections, you’re left with the plastic, and this is where it gets a bit challenging: Many municipal recyclers won’t accept the plastic pods because of their size and/or because of the type of plastic they are. Here’s what you can do:

Help Crafters
Donate cleaned, empty coffee pods to a creative reuse center. From Oakland, California’s East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse to Louisville, Kentucky’s Good Garbage center, so many cities have places where you can donate supplies for repurposing by artists, teachers, kids, or crafters.

(Photo: Facebook)

Hunt online for the reuse center nearest you—just be sure to confirm that it is accepting plastic coffee pods before you haul them over. Some reuse centers have space constraints, so the items they accept may vary each week depending how much of a given item they’ve been receiving.

Pump Up Your Coffee
Buy stronger coffee for your K-Cup. If you choose an especially strong blend, you can use one pod to make two cups, one right after the other.

You’ll be throwing away 50 percent fewer plastic pods this way.

(Photo: Flickr)

Food Storage
Use the pods to store small servings of cooking ingredients. Fill a dozen cleaned pods that you’ve disassembled with the Recycle a Cup or by hand with chopped garlic, wrap the tops with a bit of foil, and then place half in a sealed container in the fridge and half in the freezer. Do the same with minced onion and minced herbs (though not all herbs freeze well) to have these ingredients ready each time you cook.

(Photo: Flickr)

If you occasionally toss a few pods in the trash to minimize cleanup after cooking, you’re still reusing and cutting down on the waste you created with that first cup of coffee.