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HiLine on Recycling K-Cups

Image: twilightearth.com
Like the rest of you, we've been paying attention to the recent spate of news stories about K-Cups' impact on the environment. From time to time, you've asked about the best way to recycle your K-Cups, and whether HiLine Coffee has considered using alternatives to the plastics we use currently. We'd like to take some time to answer your questions.

What's In My K-Cup, Anyway?

Five things: Plastic (the cup) Paper (the filter) Coffee (the, uh, coffee) Aluminum (the foil that covers the cup) Gas (inert nitrogen gas prevents spoilage)

Are K-Cups Recycleable?

The short answer is, "Yes, but..." The somewhat longer answer: Some parts are more easily recycled than others. The foil lid can be recycled with your aluminum cans. The coffee is compostable. The paper filter is biodegradeable, or can be recycled with your other paper products. The issue is with the plastic cup itself, which uses #7 plastic. Very few recycling facilities accept that kind of plastic, because most of them aren't set up to recycle it. If you throw it in the recycling bin with your plastic milk jugs and cast-off Tupperware, that K-Cup is still going in the trash. In case you were wondering, Keurig does offer a recycling program, called Grounds to Grow On. However, it's only open to business customers.

Why Not Just Use Different Plastic?

We wish it was that easy. If you've ever tried stirring your coffee with a cheap plastic spoon, or tried putting hot liquid in certain plastic cups or soda bottles, you've probably noticed that the plastic started to soften or melt. Not all plastics have the same properties. What's great for toys, cling wrap or Dixie cups isn't going to be the same thing that's good for coffee. The plastics used for K-Cups need to be able to withstand high heat and pressure, they can't impart a chemical taste to the coffee, they can't be water-soluble, and they can't be prone to easy cracks or breaks. Naturally, they also need to meet FDA requirements for food safety.

What About Vegetable-Based Plastics?

Good question. Bioplastics seem like a great idea in theory, but we've seen some problems in practice. They're very material- and energy-intensive, so their carbon footprint, at least with the current technology, is often on par with petrol-based plastics. They have a much lower melting point, making them impractical for the Keurig. We also haven't yet found one that met the quality standards we've set forth for safety and quality.

So what are you doing about this?

While we take our coffee seriously, we're also committed to safe environmental stewardship. That's why we're currently testing new options for the plastic used in our K-Cups to find materials that meet the following criteria:
  • Must be optimized to the Keurig brewing system
  • Must meet or exceed the current FDA standards for food safety
  • Must preserve the quality of our coffee from the time we roast and pack it to the time you brew it
  • Must deliver a great cup of coffee, every time
  • Must be environmentally-friendly and fully recyclable
Some of these things (Keurig compatibility and FDA compliance) are easier than others (quality and environmental concerns). And since we're proud of the quality of our coffee, we're not willing to compromise. But we're working just as hard on this as we do on sourcing, roasting, and delivering the best coffee to your doorstep. Keurig says its K-Cups will be completely recyclable by 2020, and we'd like to beat them to the punch. If you have questions, comments, concerns or suggestions, please feel free to contact us.

Further Reading:

Details on Keurig's sustainability plan

On Bioplastics:

Food Service Warehouse: The Bioplastic Debate Discovery: Bioplastics Not So Green Recycle A Cup, makers of a K-Cup cutter/separator widget, have a page with a list of recycling resources in case your community does not offer recycling of #7 polystyrene Details on Keurig's Grounds to Grow On program Finally, here's a video from the delightfully quirky The Jen Clark on recycling K Cups: