Bill Hulet Editor

Here's the thing. A lot of important Guelph issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Recycling is REALLY Difficult, or, the Curious Case of the Coffee K-Cup

Years and years ago, when I was in university, I lived in a shared house with a bunch of other guys. One day I came home from school and I noticed that our recycling "blue box" was on the curb, un-emptied. On top of the newspapers, yogurt containers, and so on, one of my housemates had dumped a bunch of rotten apples, which (of course) meant that the recycling pickup dude had passed it by. I removed the apples and brought the blue bin back into the house. I then asked the person responsible (who's nickname was "Bizarre"---you can imagine why) about the apples that had ended up on the blue bin. His answer was that "the apples should be recyclable".

Well, yeah. Of course they should have. They are now. But what Mr. Bizarre had missed is that recycling isn't just an individual choice, it's a complex social activity that requires a huge logistical network that integrates just about every aspect of our home, government, and, economy into a well-integrated web. In the process of attempting to get all these elements together, an enormous number of people are asked to significantly change their behaviour in ways that have a profound impact on their personal lives, how they do business, and, how they view the role of government. And this ain't an easy thing to do!


I'm an environment hawk. I've never owned a car, I insulated the heck out of my house, I refuse to fly in an airplane unless absolutely necessary, etc---and even I get tripped up about what should and should not get recycled. The reason why is because what does and doesn't depends on the type of technology each municipality employs plus whether or not it makes economic sense for the city to recycle it.  It is impossible to predict whether something is supposed to be recycled or not unless you have a pretty good understanding of the local recycling infrastructure. To illustrate some of the complexities involved, consider the Keurig coffee system.

In case you've just returned from Mars,
this is a Keurig coffee machine.
image c/o Wiki Commons

I use the word "system" advisedly, because when you buy one of the coffee makers, you are making a personal commitment to purchasing the specific disposable, one-use pods that go into the machines too.

The thing on the left is a coffee cup, the item on the right isn't
a creamer, it's a coffee pod---which is the villain in this drama.
image c/o Wiki Commons
This creates a huge problem for municipalities because the pods are an order of magnitude increase in complexity for recycling as compared to loose coffee grounds. The problem is that the Keurig pod is a composite created from several different feed stocks---all of which have to go through a different process in order to be recycled.

Coffee grounds from a traditional coffee maker---
you just put them straight into the compost. 
Image from "My Earth Gardenused under "fair use" rule.

The K-Cup, on the other hand, consists of a plastic shell,
inner liner basket, and, coffee---all of which need to be
separated and sorted into different recycling streams.
(Image used under "fair use" rule, from Smithsonian Magazine,
Originally from Green Mountain Coffee.) 


Krups Espresso machine.
Just as easy.
Image c/o Amazon
under fair use rule. 
Reusable k-cups.
What's the point? "Brew-Oro" 
re-use k-cups. Image
c/o Amazon under
fair use rule.
It is true that there are reusable "k-cups" that you can purchase for a Keurig machine, but the whole point of buying one is the "convenience" of the disposable pods. If you decide to buy a reusable pod, you would be much further ahead to purchase something like an espresso maker.  I have a simple "Krups" machine and all I have to do to load it is pour in water, spoon some coffee in the metal "pod", and run it. The cup that holds the coffee cleans by tapping it with a spoon, which knocks out a neat little "puck" into the compost bucket. No fuss, no muss, and just as convenient. My Krups cost---if anything---a little less than a Keurig to buy, and certainly the coffee is a lot cheaper than if I bought it in disposable k-cups. (If you don't like espresso, toss a shot or two in a mug and fill it the rest of the way up with boiling water, and you have an "Americano".)


The question that the naive citizen is confronted with when they contemplate a disposable K-cup is "what to do with it?"

The first option is to recycle it. Unfortunately, as I pointed out above, it is a manufactured composite that consists of several different parts, all of which have to be separated out and sent into different streams.

It turns out that this is "a thing". Here's a YouTube video of a woman who took on the job of recycling the Keurig cups from her workplace.

And here's a handy, dandy, tool that you can buy (of course) and use to recycle those dastardly k-cups.

Once you've actually separated the k-cup into the three (or four) components of: plastic shell, foil top, coffee filter, and, coffee---then the citizen can separate them out for recycling. Looking at the Guelph wet dry guide to sorting your trash, it would appear that the coffee and filter paper can go into the composting stream, however, the foil lid needs to go in the garbage. And also, if you don't wash the cup assembly, it should go into the garbage too.


But wait! There's an added complexity. K-cups are small, which is a problem because it is difficult to separate them out of other parts of the recycling stream. In the words of the past Executive Director of the Municipal Waste Association (and all-around good guy) Ben Bennett,

Although the various components that make up a coffee pod, if separated, may be recyclable, recycling and sorting equipment is not designed to handle such small pieces. Even if new equipment were introduced, any separated material would be of such low value it would not justify the cost.

"The Coffee Pod Dilemma", Ben Bennett, April 2017, Municipal World, p-12 

Of course, all this complexity is not really an issue to the companies making the k-cups. They know that their customers will gladly disassemble all their products, sort them into different streams, and, municipalities will gladly set aside a fraction of people's taxes to pay for the complex sorting machines that are needed to carefully sort out these tiny pieces of plastic. In fact, they have provided a YouTube video that explains how how simple the process really is, and have given a firm timeline for when all municipalities in Canada will have their machinery in place to do the job! (I especially like the sorting machines that they have designed that sort all the different plastic types into their respective streams. Isn't technology wonderful?)

I hate to rain on the Keurig parade, but the animated plastic sorting system that you see in the above video is not quite exactly how stuff is sorted at the Wet/Dry facility in Guelph. (Fast forward to slightly after the one minute mark, if you are in a rush.)

As you can see, there are no groovy magical machines that sort a bunch of garbage into different streams---paper, plastic, glass, etc---instead there are just a bunch of poorly paid people trying to keep up to a fast conveyor belt. Moreover, the same process is used to separate plastic items into different streams. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, look at the bottom of a plastic item and you'll see one of these logos.) If you mix up the different types, you contaminate the feed stock and this dramatically lowers the value of the reclaimed material.

Yup, that's right. There are seven different categories of plastic
that need to separated from one another. And, it's done by hand.
Now toss in tiny Keurig cups and see how efficient the process gets.
Image used by "fair use", from "Eartheasy". 


We interrupt this detailed and depressing deconstruction of recycling as a complex social phenomenon to insert a venal plea for money! Yes, being a journalist is work. And in order to ensure that people actually create information that allows citizens to make informed decisions during elections, there needs to be some positive feedback mechanism for people to reward the "creatives" who do the research and writing. Luckily, we now have "Patreon", which allows people to make small payment subscriptions to bloggers who are trying to fill the void left by the decline of mainstream newspapers. (Thanks Susan for your monthly pledge---you are awesome!) You can also leave a one-time donation. Both options appear on the right hand side of the page. If you can't afford to pay even as little as $1/month, that's OK. You can also help by sharing the the "Back-Grounder" link on social media with your friends. Now back to our main event!


I hope that I haven't lost anyone with my exhaustively detailed exposition about why it is ridiculous to suggest that people will be recycling their Keurig pods. Even the industry can understand the problem, so there has been another initiative, one that suggests that there is a composting k-cup, one that you just toss in the green bin and which then breaks down into plant food. That sounds ideal. Instead of separating the plastic bits into separate streams for recycling. All you have to do is toss the used pods into your green bin.

Three years ago there was a public relations flurry in Guelph about the "composting" coffee pod that had been developed at the University of Guelph.

The problem is, however, that just because something can be composted under ideal conditions in a system designed for this sort of item doesn't mean that the specific system that any given municipality uses to compost municipal waste will be able to do so.

The thing to realize is the importance of velocity to composting. That is to say, some things break down faster than others. To illustrate the point, consider the difference between raw steak and beef jerky. You would never leave a steak in a jar in your pantry for even a week because it would start to rot. But you can leave jerky there for months if not years. It's the same thing with stuff you toss in your green bin. Your banana peels and apple cores are like raw steak---they break down fast. A "compostable" k-cup is more like the jerky. As you can see from this YouTube video, the Guelph composting system is quite complex and is designed to do it's job in only around 60 days. (Again, if you are in a rush, skip the first minute or so. It also refers to plastic bags instead of bins, but the process is still the same as it was back before the transition to the new bins.)

Contrast this with the definition of "compostable" that is used by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). According to the good people at the Municipal Waste Association, to be certified by the BPI a product has to be degraded after 180 days, not the 60 that most municipal waste streams usually use. This places the coffee pods securely in the "jerky" category, not the "raw steak" one. And indeed, it is the case that municipalities have found that the "theoretically compostable" k-cups actually don't break down in composting systems like the one Guelph uses. This is tremendously important, because if something takes three times as long to process, the city would have to have three times the current processing facilities to "cook" the compost long enough to ensure that everything breaks down.


Even worse, composting facilities have to take into account what was explained to me years ago as "the pajama syndrome". That is 10% of citizens will drive across the city at midnight in their pajamas to recycle their waste. Another 10% will only recycle if there is a revolver pressed against their temple and a finger is slowly tightening on the trigger. The other 80% are somewhere in between and will mostly only pay the absolute minimum of attention to the recycling process. This is why recycling programs have to be very, very simple and clear if the city doesn't want people to screw things up by tossing the wrong stuff in the streams. And putting out different brands of k-cups, advertising them as being "recyclable" (when they really aren't), or, "compostable" (when they really aren't)---both of which look almost exactly the same---is just asking for trouble. This is because the plastic cups will get into the compost and screw up the compost quality, and, the composting cups will get into the plastic stream and screw up the plastic feed stock quality.


The problem is that when private sector researchers are working on a new product whether or not the product can be recycled or composted using the existing municipal systems is just not one of the design criteria. And when the product moves from the lab to the point where the public relations and advertising people start touting it to the general public, there is zero incentive for the company to point out this fine detail. It really doesn't matter at all to the company if the product actually does cut down on waste---the real utility of being "recyclable" or "composting" resides in the ability of this label to convince the public that it is doing something good so they will buy that product instead of one from their competitors. This is the phenomenon known as "Greenwashing".  This isn't some sort of awful conspiracy or proof the evil nature of the people involved. It's just an aspect of the "invisible hand" of the marketplace.

And I use the phrase "invisible hand" advisedly. If you asked everyone involved in the process of trying to confuse people about whether it is a good idea to promote disposable coffee pods, you would probably find some sort of compelling narrative about why what they are doing is a "good thing". The researchers in the laboratory are trying to come up with innovative processes that might eventually be useful---even if they are exaggerating now. Certainly, the money that comes from the private company helps fund the education of grad students. The people writing the press releases are probably trying to keep a good job that they need to pay the mortgage and student loans. And the guy who runs the company that sells the coffee pods is probably trying desperately to keep his company afloat in a tremendously cut-throat market. (A lot of business people really feel a sense of obligation towards their employees and investors, and if they don't keep the profits rolling in they know that they will have to lay people off and lose people's life savings.)

So each person involved in this change has a tremendous personal pressure to "accentuate the positive, and negate the negative", which means that the actual truth of the matter---that there is nothing even remotely "environmentally-friendly" about these coffee pods---just never really gets said. None of these people have decided to be like Shakespeare's Richard the Third and "make good their evil and evil their good". They just realized which side of the bread was buttered and followed the line of least resistance. This isn't surprising---that's how one gets and keeps these sorts of jobs. That's not a conspiracy, or even real malfeasance, it's just how our economy works. The problem is that competition (the "invisible hand") forces people---even if they have the best of intentions---to do things that are against the public interest. So it's important to understand that Capitalism, the "free market", or whatever you call it, has a direct interest in subverting recycling programs, and it will do it every chance it can. 


This really shouldn't be a huge surprise to anyone. After all, whenever any new technology has come onto the scene there has been a "time lag" between the invention exploding onto the society and government realizing that there needs to be some sort of regulation to keep the "invisible hand" from strangling the citizenry. We have a huge web of government regulations and agencies that keep businesses from poisoning, electrocuting, blowing up, etc, ordinary Canadians. These social constructs are at constant war with the free market as business people try to convince governments that these regulations are just "mindless red tape" that get in the way of them making "an honest buck". Eventually, the federal and provincial governments, plus international treaties will reign in the power of corporations to create huge mountains of trash. (I have no doubt that this is coming. For example, Brussels has recently "declared war on plastic waste".) But before they do, municipal governments will be stuck cleaning up the mess left behind by the "miracle of the free market". 

Without regulation to control the creation of garbage, this is our future.
So, we will have regulation---eventually.
Photo from Phys/Org under fair use rule. 

My take away from all the research I've done for this article is that the people who manage the municipal recycling programs are placed in an almost impossible situation. They don't control the laws governing packaging---those come under the jurisdiction of the federal and provincial governments. They don't even control the laws that govern advertising, so they can't stop marketing campaigns that confuse the citizenry about what does or doesn't go into the blue or green bins. They just get stuck with a bewildering array of products and materials---both new and old---that they have to figure out how to keep out of the landfill. Managing a municipal recycling system is insanely difficult and it would be a miracle of miracles if a city were able to consistently do so with both a high rate of recovery and keeping within a modest budget. So remember this fact when you hear people complaining bitterly about the Guelph wet/dry. 

I have plans for future articles on this subject. My next one will hopefully be about how the spot market for recycled materials and a recent decision in China has impacts on the Guelph wet/dry.


  1. Bill, thanks for the great article. I have been following this single use coffee pod fiasco for many years and one annoying and repeated error in the brand owners published "life cycle" analysis is that they report the weight of household or any lab trials left-over liquid coffee that is disposed of as liquid waste down the drain. This reported liquid waste weight (managed through public waste water plants or in-situ home septic systems) skews the solid waste data that municipalities use to determine waste diversion. Thus, perpetuating the coffee stained Greenwash further.

    1. More evidence that capitalism doesn't play well with science---. :-(

  2. Thank you a very thorough description of the woes the recycling industry faces. As one of the 80% we are having a crisis of conscience over our use of Nespresso pods. We keep used pods out of the Guelph stream as the company claims to have recycling centres. They do, but Mississauga is the closest making it inconvenient. We are considering going to a French Press system but as D Barton observes the grounds if put in the drain add to the sewage load. I guess tho old drip maker has the least impact and best chance of being fully and easily recyclable.

    1. The sewage load isn't an issue for the consumer. Mr. Barton was referring to "jiggery-pokery" in the research they were using to justify claims. But you certainly shouldn't be flushing coffee grounds down your sink. They turn into a concrete-like substance in your drain pipes and that can result in very expensive to fix blockages. They go into the green bin or your composting bin. A French press can be annoying to clean (that's why I use an espresso machine.) A drip machine works good too. The paper filter goes straight into the compost stream and you can buy non-disposable filters too.