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Darren Footz is spending $10-million to develop a compostable and biodegradable cup called the G-Kups. (DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Darren Footz is spending $10-million to develop a compostable and biodegradable cup called the G-Kups. (DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The environmental tipping point of one-cup coffee pods Add to ...

Coffee drinkers’ love of an easy fix has created a multibillion-dollar market for single-serve coffee cups and the machines that brew them. It has also created a mountain of eternal garbage, and a race to hit the shelves with coffee pods that can be chucked in the compost or recycling bins.

In one year, Toronto residents and businesses wrongly toss 10 million of the cups – 90 tonnes – into recycling bins, according to the City of Toronto.

“These pods [or] discs are not recyclable and are removed as garbage that is landfilled,” said Patricia Barrett of the City of Toronto.

“In Edmonton, we ask residents to put coffee discs in the garbage because we cannot recycle them at this point. This is because they are not made of a single material that we can sort and market,” said Andrea Soler of the City of Edmonton’s waste management department. “They are a plastic cup, with a foil lid and full of wet coffee grounds. Even if residents remove the foil lid and coffee grounds, the plastic cup is too small for our recycling facility to sort.”

Almost of half of all Canadian coffee drinkers have one of the coffee brewers on their kitchen counters, and another 20 per cent say they are interested in buying one of the machines known for their convenience, consistency and variety, according to consultancy Mintel Group Ltd.

The machines start at about $100 and generate a disc-shaped piece of garbage with every cup, which costs at least 60 cents.

This mountain of plastic and foil is creating headaches for the municipalities that have to sort them out of the blue box stream and send them to landfills.

“These types of products are exploding in the market as a delivery vehicle for coffee, tea and other various types of drinks. The Keurig folks unleashed a monster,” said Larry Johnson, a food analyst in California.

“What could be easier than taking a small spoonful of coffee and putting it into a container in a traditional coffee maker? Well, pods are easier. They take all the guesswork out of it. And they’re faster, and you don’t have to make a whole pot of coffee, so there’s a fresh cup of coffee every time you need it.”

Of the 33 per cent who are not keen on buying one of the machines that brew a cup at a time, the coffee price is the reason most often cited, not the amount of garbage generated.

“So far, I don’t see [waste concerns] as a big issue. The convenience element has trumped it,” Mr. Johnson said by phone.

The single-serve market is dominated by Nestle, Keurig Green Mountain and Tassimo.

In North America, the market leader is Keurig Green Mountain, a Vermont-based company with a market value of $11.4-billion and sales of almost $5-billion (U.S.). The company’s patent on pods that fit its machines expired in 2012, opening the market to a long list competitors. Last year, Keurig raised pod prices by 10 per cent and defended its market dominance by launching machines that reject unlicensed pods, and do not work with the company’s own, refillable pods.

The moves were met by consumer anger and antitrust lawsuits in Canada and the United States. Smaller rivals, including Canada’s Club Coffee, soon announced they had cracked the Keurig code and began selling cups that worked with newer Keurig machines. Internet searches quickly turned up ways to trick the machines with scissors and tape into brewing any pod.

After sales of the new machines flopped, the company said it would bring back the reusable cups. “Quite honestly, we were wrong,” Keurig CEO Brian Kelley said on a May conference call with analysts. “We underestimated the passion the consumer had for this.” Since he made the comments, the company’s share price has fallen by 30 per cent.

Mr. Johnson, the analyst, said Keurig’s attempt to lock out competitors was a tactic favoured by makers of razors and printers – sell them the machine and they have to buy your refills. But no one goes through three razor blades by lunchtime, and consumers are bound to look for cheaper, and greener, alternatives to the single-serve cups.

“When they see 10, 20, 100 plastic cups in the trash in the office or in someone’s home, it’s really tough to ignore,” said Vancouver entrepreneur Darren Footz, who is spending $10-million (Canadian) developing a compostable and biodegradable cup called the G-Kup, developed in partership with University of British Columbia. He hopes to have a new Vancouver factory churning out the coffee-filled cups by November.

Mr. Footz, 46, founded West Coast coffee maker Granville Island Coffee Co. in 2009. Though he still sits on the board, he is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the roaster. He has witnessed a steadily growing pushback against the stream of garbage created by the one-cup-at-a-time craze. Offices, the place where single-serve first caught hold, are beginning to dust off the percolators and unplug the single-serve machines to reduce the amount of plastic going to landfills.

“This is the product that is on everybody’s radar. We knew that there was going to be a tipping point soon,” Mr. Footz said. “They’re going back to non-plastic non-petroleum-based products.”

Of the companies trying to market a coffee pod that will break down in municipal compost systems, Toronto’s Club Coffee is believed to be closest to ready.

The company expects its PurPod100 coffee cups will be certified compostable within a month by ASTM International, a U.S.-based standards association. Meantime, the company has spent the past several months demonstrating for municipal officials across Canada that the pods made of corn- and coffee-based plastics will completely break down in compost programs.

“There is a real sensitivity of this issue, and I think there’s a real pent-up demand,” said Claudio Gemmiti, vice-president of innovation at Club Coffee, which roasts and packages coffee in everything from tin cans to bags and pods for large Canadian grocers and coffee chains and several regional U.S. brands. “I think that consumers like the convenience of single serve but I think they want to enjoy that convenience without the guilt of thinking about all this garbage that is being built up.”

Club Coffee has spent $30-million building a factory dedicated to making single-serve cups for the Keurig brewing machines. At the heart of its push into the K-Cup market is a pod consumers can chuck in their green bins. The pods are made of vegetable-based plastics and are compostable – not just biodegradable or recylable, the company says.

“Everything biodegrades eventually,” Mr. Gemmiti said. “If I let my car sit outside for long enough, it’ll biodegrade. But that’s not a very useful process for us to hope for with our coffee pods.”

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