Michael Dupee, Green Mountain’s vice president for corporate social responsibility, said some customers did not like to see the waste. “Consumers see the waste stream,” Mr. Dupee said, “and they compare it to what they had done before, and they have a perception that there is a problem.”
To some consumers, however, the convenience and efficiency override the waste issue.
“We used to make a pot of coffee, and we would be throwing it out all the time,” said Michael Hurley, who uses the K-Cup system for concessions at small-town movie theaters he owns in Belfast and Houlton, Me. “So we don’t do that anymore. And when people come in, they get exactly what they want.”
Mr. Dupee showed off a prototype that Green Mountain planned to test this summer. It is a paper K-Cup, filled with Celestial Seasonings tea, that eliminates the plastic and the aluminum foil. In addition, he said many consumers had started brewing coffee in reusable metal-mesh filters for the Keurig machines, which accept ground coffee.
Green Mountain, he said, has also commissioned a life-cycle analysis to understand the environmental costs of the K-Cups. Though he would not discuss details of the analysis, pending a third-party review, he did say the study found that most of the impacts occur where the packaging is produced, not where the waste is disposed. He said he had been working with suppliers to make their manufacturing processes cleaner and more efficient.
He also cited Green Mountain’s collaboration with International Paper to develop the Ecotainer — a hot-beverage cup with a plant-based, compostable lining — as an example of progress in packaging.
Other coffee companies are also wrestling with the waste issue. Businesses that use Flavia pods, which is made by Mars, are able to ship the used pods to the New Jersey company TerraCycle, which will compost the coffee or tea and reuse the plastic in products like pavers and fencing, a TerraCycle spokesman, Albe Zakes said. More than 2.5 million Flavia packs in the United States have been recycled in the last year. Mars sells a billion drinks a year in 35,000 workplaces worldwide.
In Britain, Mr. Zakes said, TerraCycle has processed more than 800,000 coffee discs from Kraft’s Tassimo single-serve system. The results are being evaluated for possible application in the United States, a Kraft spokeswoman, Bridget MacConnell, said. Kraft and Mars are paying for collecting the pods, including shipping costs to TerraCycle.
Sara Lee has a simpler solution for its Senseo pods — the coffee-filled filter bags are made of paper and are biodegradable and compostable.
Nestlé’s upscale Nespresso system uses aluminum capsules, and it has started a pilot program to collect used pods for recycling at some Nespresso Boutiques.
Ms. Hoover, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said another option was to include prepaid mailers with coffee pods, as Hewlett-Packard has done for ink-jet cartridges.
Green Mountain’s chief executive, Lawrence J. Blanford, said the K-Cups had some environmental benefits. Brewing one cup at a time means less wasted coffee at the bottom of the pot, and this reduces the overall environmental impact per cup of coffee.
K-Cups are also increasing demand for fair-trade coffees, he said, which accounted for 30 percent of Green Mountain sales in 2009. Fair-trade-certified coffees ensure that coffee farmers are paid a fair price per pound, and that coffee farms meet certain environmental standards.
Peter Meehan, chief executive of Newman’s Own Organics, said the success of the K-Cups, which are his company’s fastest-growing product, had helped Newman expand the market for organic products.
Still, Ms. Hoover wonders whether there is a simpler solution to the waste question. “At some point you have to ask, ‘But do we need this product enough that we need to be trying to find all these different solutions for the components of it, or can we just go back to the old way that we used to make coffee, and was that good enough?’ ”