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Single-cup coffee makers: A morning cup of environmental harm?

Single-cup coffee makers are popular, but even the industry admits the containers are an environmental problem.
Single-cup coffee makers are popular, but even the industry admits the containers are an environmental problem. MCT

If you received a one-cup coffee maker — or a box of coffee for one — as a Christmas gift, you probably have brewed through and tossed out plenty of those little capsules by now, and perhaps you've started to wonder about the environmental impact and the value of convenience.

Turns out that many people like that convenience: In the 12 months ending in November, nearly 46 percent of the money going toward the purchase of coffee makers or espresso makers went to single-serve machines, according to NPD Group, a market research firm.

Keurig, a major player in the one-cup coffee business, reports that research it commissioned indicated 13 percent of all U.S. offices have one of its brewers.

The company confronts the green issue head-on, saying on its Web site: "As the single-cup coffee market and our Keurig brewing systems grow in popularity, we understand that the impact of the K-Cup portion pack waste stream is one of our most significant environmental challenges."

The K-Cup coffee and tea cartridges are difficult to recycle because they are made of three materials: a plastic cup, which is lined with a heat-sealed paper filter, plus a polyethylene-coated aluminum foil top. Keurig says the packaging keeps coffee fresh, but the cartridges are not biodegradable.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that 9 billion cartridges have been sold. Keurig said it doesn't make that information public, but it did say sales of K-Cups more than doubled in 2011 from 2010.

Keurig came on the market in 1998. The company said its coffee drinkers don't have to grind beans, measure coffee or clean a pot.

Late in 2010, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf introduced One Touch, a machine whose capsules use a foil top and a perforated plastic interior. And for years, Nespresso has sold a one-cup cartridge coffee maker. Neither company would agree to talk for this story; the Nespresso Web site said the company collects its aluminum coffee capsules in some places for recycling. (Some coffee makers use single-portion packets made of paper and grounds, without metal or plastic containers.)

At $15 or so for 24 cartridges, a cup of Keurig coffee costs about 62 cents. The company also sells a reusable filter cartridge, called My K-Cup. It works the same way as the disposable cartridge but must be filled with coffee and washed.

A coffee-lover and inventor who considered the K-Cups expensive and wasteful came up with My-Kap, a plastic lid that costs about $3 and fits the K-Cup, so the grounds can be rinsed out and the cup reused. If the K-Cup is used twice, its environmental footprint is cut in half, the company said.

A Keurig fan who calls herself Madrosed shows in a YouTube video how to reuse cartridges. She said she uses one cartridge 10 times.