Friday, February 08, 2013

K-Cup Conundrum

Though the appearance and taste is comparable (relative to flavor) the difference is in the design and materials.
Two years ago, for my birthday, my wife bought a Keurig single cup coffee maker for our kitchen. As someone who would often make a whole pot of coffee before work only to leave much of it behind to waste, it was a great purchase. Conscientious about material waste, we would collect the used k-cups and separate the "parts" for recycling every week or so (with grounds going into our table top composter for later addition to the larger outdoor one).

Shortly after the expiration of the patent on k-cups expired, our local (now regional) mega-lo shopping mart, Wegmans, started offering their own brand of store brand k-cups. (Much like national chain Trader Joe's, more and more frequently Wegmans is stocking store shelves with store brands of popular products rather than those with a higher level--and presumably higher price--of national name recognition brands.) Because they are priced lower than the national brand, they, like other store brand alternatives, are a potentially attractive purchase. Even better, when it comes to taste, the quality is very comparable to the more expensive brew. This is, of course, a good thing.

The downside comes when one is attempting to recycle the k-cups. As I cannot envision myself becoming a K-cup creative crafter, this is an important part of my purchasing process.

Wegmans brand Decaf k-cups.
Issues of taste aside (I am by no means a coffee connoisseur, so if there is a discernible difference in taste between Wegmans and Keurig's coffees, it is lost on me), the differences in packaging are only slightly visible to the eye, but moreso to the touch. The texture of the top gives away the truth that Wegmans uses a plastic top as opposed to Keurig's foil one. The cups themselves seem to be of similar design and composition.

Keurig brand Donut House k-cups.
Keurig addresses possible concerns around the environmental impact of their k-cups under the "" page of their website:
The manufacturing requirements of the K-Cup® pack currently make recycling difficult. The K-Cup® pack is made up of three main elements: the cup itself, a filter and an aluminum foil top. The pack's components prevent oxygen, light and moisture from degrading the coffee. Without the barrier the packaging materials provide, we could not maintain quality or freshness. However, we are actively working to meet the challenge of creating a pack that reduces environmental impact and continues to deliver an extraordinary cup of coffee.
Despite the challenge of matching the convenience of k-cup coffees with the desire to produce a product that is recyclable, Kuerig's product is at least relatively easy to disassemble for recycling purposes.

Wegmans k-cup post-mortem.
The plastic(?) top is difficult to remove without cutting with scissors. There are fibrous connective material that makes pulling it off easily very difficult. The small filter inside the cup also seems t be made of some sort of plastic mesh. This is also very challenging to neatly (and quickly remove) without cutting. Additionally, the glue used to adhere the filter to the edges is very strong.

Keurig k-cup post-mortem.
Two distinguishing features of the Keurig design are the small paper filter glued around the edges of the cup and the aluminum foil lid covers the top of the K-Cup. These are clearly composed of different material than those produces and sold by Wegmans and it is these different elements that the most significant difference is present. While the taste of the coffees may be similar, the ease with which one can disassemble the components for recycling is not.

While the foil top and paper filter are fairly easy to separate from the plastic cup, those plastic elements of the Wegmans k-cup are not. This occurred to me when I tried to prepare the stack of Wegmans k-cups I had set aside and realized that what had been, at best, a ten minute activity with Keurig's product became a much more arduous task that after 20+ minutes I had honestly lost the patience to follow-though on. Additionally, in Monroe County, New York, where we live, the aluminum foil tops are recyclable. The guidelines around the same potential for the plastic covers is not so clear on the county's website.

Since the Keurig coffee maker is here to stay in our household, in an effort to save time, frustration, as well as to remain as recycle-friendly as possible, we have continued to spend the extra money to get those cups that are more easily recyclable rather than the less expensive and cheaper Wegmans brand.

Are K-Cups Recyclable? by Heath Robert, Demand Media.
Wegmans, Kodak and K-Cups by Rachel Barnhart, The Rochesterian.

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