Coffee Pods: A Happy Ending

One way to brew responsibly.


SAGE (Sound Advice for a Green Earth) is a project by advanced students in environmental sciences, engineering, business and journalism to answer sustainability questions. Submit questions.

Q: I’ve been troubled by the conversion from drip coffeemakers to individual brews in everyone’s offices, including mine. What are the pros and cons of that choice? — Anonymous

The Essential Answer

History is full of good intentions gone awry. Just as Dr. Frankenstein came to realize his creation was a monster, the inventor of the single-serve coffeemaker, John Sylvan, regrets dreaming up that darn machine. “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it,” Sylvan told the Atlantic in 2015. He doesn’t even use one to brew his own morning cup of joe.

Single-serves allow users to make convenient and customizable cups of coffee. Pop a pod into the machine, and a minute later, you have a piping hot pick-me-up for one. The catch? The machine requires one disposable plastic pod for each cup. The pods are made from mixed plastics with a foil top, making them essentially nonrecyclable and thus destined for the landfill.

These machines have cropped up at an alarming rate in offices and kitchens all over the country — they’re found in about 27 percent of U.S. homes; 8.3 billion pods were sold in 2013 alone. Placed end to end, that’s enough pods to wrap around the equator more than 10 times.

So the conscientious consumer is caught between convenience and Mother Earth herself. But there is some hope. You can buy refillable filter capsules that fit into your single-serve machine. The extra 30 seconds spent filling the filter before you brew and cleaning it afterward could eliminate the pile of coffee pod skeletons in your trash can.

If you’re a single-serve user, you have the power to switch from one pod — or more — per day to a longtime friendship with a reusable filter. For less than $10 for most styles of reusable filter capsules, you’ll save money as well as landfill space; single-use coffee pods cost roughly $19 per month for just one pod a day. Curious about the true cost of a cup of coffee and other products disrupting the home-brew industry? Read on.

The Nitty-Gritty

Refillable, reusable capsules are one way we can start to free ourselves from the coffee pod prison. However, if you are still hooked, there are now specialized recycling programs that can handle plastic or aluminum coffee pods — for a fee, of course. But there are bigger issues in the coffee industry and better ways to brew your favorite beverage. Here’s a little something to chew on while enjoying your first sip of French Roast tomorrow morning.

Americans are willing to shell out about $1,100 each year on coffee, on average, according to one estimate. But there is a much larger cost associated with coffee than all those five-dollar bills. Buying or brewing coffee has become such a regular part of our routines that most people do not consider the path that those dark little beans take on the way to their steaming cup every morning. Coffee “beans” — they’re coffee tree seeds really, more like a cherry pit than a true bean — must be grown, extracted from their fruits, dried, and finally shipped from their tropical home to roasters and consumers in every corner of the world. Each of these steps uses resources and inputs, including fertilizers, pesticides, fuel, electricity and water. In fact, the average cup (250 milliliters) of coffee takes almost 1,200 cups (280 liters) of water to produce from seed to table — enough volume to fill a bathtub. That’s a ratio of a shot glass of water for every single drop of coffee brewed.

Ultimately — because of its exotic nature — drinking coffee is one of the more inherently problematic beverage selections we can make; unless you live in the tropics, locally grown coffee is just not an option. But there are lots of ways to make sure that your coffee doesn’t come at too high a cost. These may include buying certified fair trade or shade grown coffee, which minimizes human rights violations and environmental degradation. Previous SAGE answers on coffee production, certification programs and even reusable versus single-use cups will give you all the details you need to be a coffee sustainability superstar.

As we explored in the essential answer, single-serving machines generate a huge amount of waste through the disposal of their single-use pods. This differs from most classic coffee pots: Even those that use a paper filter produce only compostable waste.

Still, no matter how sustainable the beans or the process may be, drip machines often still host a sludge of old, burned, stale coffee that remains unloved and untouched at the end of the day. If drip-machine brewers toss out just 15 percent of each batch — Keurig’s estimate, but it seems reasonable — that translates to about 105 cups (25 liters) of water wasted per pot. Furthermore, coffee drinkers often overestimate the quantity of grounds that they need to pour into their machines, which ends up being less efficient than the perfectly measured volume packaged into single-use pods. These extra grounds represent even more water wasted in the context of an already resource-intensive crop.

Fortunately, there are lots of ways to minimize the amount of waste that you generate while still getting your (precisely measured) daily dose of caffeine. Reusable pods, discussed in the essential answer, are a great start. If you’re feeling sophisticated, a traditional French press pot makes a great cup of coffee sure to impress any dinner party — and they’re available in single-serving sizes so you can match darkness of roast and intensity of caffeine to each of your guests. Or you could go higher-tech, for example with the AeroPress, a single-serving brewing device invented by Stanford lecturer Alan Adler. This plastic cylinder improves on the French Press design by adding pressure to the brewing process and reducing the total wet time of the grounds. Coffee lovers say it creates a strong, less acidic cup of coffee, similar to espresso, in just one minute. And it leaves nothing behind but a pellet of coffee grounds and a tiny paper filter that can be used up to 25 times — or you can buy a reusable filter and do away with the paper altogether.

It is also possible to make responsible choices if you prefer to buy your caffeine in frothy milk form, served with caramel syrup and whipped cream by your friendly neighborhood barista. Commercial-style brewing found in shops like Starbucks is actually the most efficient process, because workers brew large quantities all at once and serve almost every drop of the pot. The problem with these stores is not their steeping practices but the fact that consumers tend to buy a new paper or plastic cup with every purchase. Thus, if you bring in your own mug, you may be making a more eco-friendly choice than if you were to brew the same cup of coffee at home.

In many of the choices you make every day, eco-friendly alternatives seem to sacrifice convenience, which makes the tradeoff seem unappealing. In the case of coffee, it is possible to continue to use single-serving coffee makers — or even buy a daily cup at Starbucks — without clogging landfills, or spending too much extra time and effort. So go ahead, brew on. •

CHLOE KOSEFF, ’16, is a master’s student in Earth Systems.