Toronto-based Club Coffee LP is poised to be the first to the grocery store shelf with single-serve coffee pods that are certified biodegradable.
The stamp of approval from the Biodegradable Products Institute Inc. could mean a sales lift for 109-year-old Club Coffee, which roasts and packages coffee and tea for a range of brands in Canada and the United States.
"We do believe the consumer is looking for single-serve convenience without guilt, and so we do believe there's a pent-up demand for this sort of technology," said Claudio Gemmiti, senior vice-president of Club Coffee, which is part of the privately held Morrison Lamothe Inc. group of food makers. "The more mountains of K-Cups build up, the more I think consumers start to recognize the convenience comes at a cost."
But despite certification, it isn't clear whether many municipalities will accept the biodegradable pods in their composting programs. Toronto, Canada's largest municipality, has already said no to putting them in the city's green bins.
Single-serve coffee pods made for coffee brewers popularized by Keurig Green Mountain Inc. and Nestlé's Nespresso and Mondelez's Tassimo have in just a few years become popular for their consistency and ease of use. Coffee drinkers spent $4-billion (U.S.) last year on single-serve cups – a rise of 32 per cent. More than a quarter of all households in Canada and the United States have a brewer, which is the top-selling home appliance, according to the U.S. National Coffee Association.
The cups, made by several companies under countless brand names, are generally not recyclable.
A recent industry National Coffee Association poll found 40 per cent of those surveyed were concerned about the environmental impact of the piles of plastic coffee pods that are dumped into landfills each year.
"When we do audits, we notice coffee pods showing up a lot now in the waste stream," said Daryl McCartney, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Alberta and executive director of the Edmonton Waste Management Centre of Excellence.
Club Coffee's paper-capped PurPod, invented by a team at the University of Guelph, uses a brown-flecked bioplastic ring made of coffee bean chaff – the waste left after roasting – and a filter made from biodegradable plastic derived from corn or other plants. Within four to six weeks, BPI says the entire package will rot into rich soil in municipal composting systems, which cities and towns are creating to divert food waste from landfills.
The pods will sell for about the same price as the traditional K-Cups – 50 cents to 70 cents. The coffee and tea PurPods will be available by November, Mr. Gemmiti said.
"Although we know there's a lot of good-willed people in the world that claim that they'd pay more for these kinds of technologies, they rarely do," Mr. Gemmiti said. "We did everything we could to make sure we could deliver all these technologies cost-neutral to the retailer."
Crafting the plant-based material into a pod that can withstand the heat and pressure of a coffee maker took years of testing, and required the company to build a new Southern Ontario supply chain.
The patent on the rings is held by the developer, the University of Guelph, which licenses the technology to a resin maker that in turn sells biodegradable pellets to a company that makes the rings. Club Coffee then buys the package and fills it with coffee it imports, roasts and grinds at a new $30-million factory in the northwest part of Toronto.
Club Coffee executives have travelled across Canada to meet with waste management officials at several large municipalities in hopes of proving the pods' compostability and winning their blessing.
If people wanted to start tossing them into the compost right away in Edmonton, "there certainly isn't anything preventing it from our standpoint," Prof. McCartney said.
The City of Toronto, however, said compostable plastics are not readily digested in the city's compost system, and it doubts any other Ontario municipality could handle them, either.
"These items are not recyclable in Toronto, nor are they accepted in the City's Green Bin program – they are considered garbage," said Beth Goodger, Toronto's general manager of solid waste management services. "It doesn't make a difference if the company claims their products are compostable or biodegradable, largely because there is no consistency of production across the industry market."