They have become the cigarette butt of the coffee industry — at least from a recycling perspective.
The small, airtight plastic coffee brewing capsules, best known by the brand name K-Cup, have become ubiquitous in home and office kitchens, replacing coffee pots by offering fast, clean, single-serve brews with a variety of flavors.
There's just one problem — the coffee capsules are tough to recycle. And with industry-leader Keurig Green Mountain estimating it sold 9.8 billion K-Cup portion packs sold last year, that has sparked environmental concerns. There's even a Kill the K-Cup video.
Enter Trenton-based TerraCycle, a company known for taking on complex recycling and "upcycling" challenges. TerraCycle launched the world's first cigarette butt recycling program in 2012 and has now turned its attention to the plastic coffee capsules.
The difficulty of recycling coffee capsules comes from the mix of plastic, foil wrapper and used coffee grounds, said Albe Zakes, global vice president of communications for TerraCycle.
"Both the cigarette butts and the coffee pods needs to be shredded and separated into different categories," Zakes told NJ.com. "Unlike many other things we recycle — drink pouches, chip bags, pens, glue bottles, etc. — both coffee capsules and cigarette butts have organic materials alongside the plastic and/or metal."
TerraCycle began the coffee capsule-recycling program about 18 months ago and has already recycled 2,481 pounds of the cups through its "Zero Waste Box" program. The process, however, is costly.
TerraCycle sells its Zero Waste boxes in three sizes ranging from $78 to $210. The price includes the cardboard box to collect the coffee capsules and prepaid return shipping to the recycling facility.
"It is a benefit because you are actually reusing the material to create other usable product rather than it going into the landfill where in 25 years it will not decompose," said Ernie Simpson, vice president of research and development for TerraCycle.
Simpson said the majority of the coffee capsules are made using plastic #7, which is the most difficult and costly to recycle. Many recycling facilities do not accept this type of plastic, Simpson said.
When the Zero Waste boxes are shipped back to TerraCycle's facility, the capsules are stripped into component parts. The aluminum foil on the top of the capsule is removed and recycled. The coffee grounds or tea leaves inside are composted. The filter is recycled. And the plastic is turned into small plastic pellets, Simpson said.
The plastic pellets are then sold on the open market to be made into new plastic items such as plastic wood or plastic pallets. The sale of the plastic and the revenue from the Zero Waste box sales help to cover the expenses of processing and recycling the capsules, Zakes said.
The idea to sell the Zero Waste Boxes came when clients of TerraCycle's other free programs started asking if the company could recycle other items, even if it meant paying for it.
"A lot of us were like 'no one is ever going to pay to do this,'" said Rhandi Goodman, who runs the Zero Waste Box program. "People started purchasing them and the orders just started coming in."
The Zero Waste box program is available for a wide variety of products including batteries, art supplies and baby bibs. The company also markets "no separation" boxes that allow individuals or businesses to place all their recyclables in one box instead of separating it out.
Goodman said the coffee capsule Zero Waste Boxes are by far the most popular, as consumption of the single serve coffee pods has increased dramatically in the last few years.
"A large portion of the population are coffee drinkers or hot beverage drinkers, but only five percent of coffee pods are currently recyclable," said Goodman.
The largest maker of the capsules, Keurig, has said it hopes to make all K-Cups recyclable by 2020.
"The recyclability of Keurig Green Mountain K-Cup packs is a challenge we take very seriously," the company said in a statement.
In the meantime, Goodman said TerraCycle has been trying to work with the company to start up a recycling program that would let customers recycle the coffee capsules for free.
The growing concern about mountains of coffee capsules being dumped into landfills has led to criticism of the technology by its inventor. John Sylvan told The Atlantic in a recent interview that he regrets inventing the K-Cup and the Keurig brewing system, citing the waste and environmental implications as his primary concern.
When contacted by NJ Advance Media about TerraCycle's efforts, Sylvan said he thought the company's program was interesting, but he questioned whether a system that requires separating coffee capsules from other trash and recycling could gain traction.
"Ninety-nine percent of most people won't. The point of the K-Cup is convenience," Sylvan said in an email. "I really have a hard time imagining someone mailing used cups anywhere.
Sylvan, who sold his share of the company in 1997 for $50,000, suggested that if the coffee capsule was made of aluminum, like a soda can, consumers would be more inclined to put the cups in current home and business recycling streams.
"This would be my solution," he said.