They’re nonrecyclable and nonbiodegradable, and the amount of them buried in landfills could circle the globe an estimated 12 times. Now Germany’s second-largest city appears to have aligned itself with the kill-the-K-Cup movement.
Thanks to sweeping green-purchasing regulations that went into effect in January, workers and visitors at state-run buildings in Hamburg will no longer have access to single-use coffee pods. According to the 150-page Guide to Sustainable Procurement, government offices are now barred from buying “certain polluting products or product components.” Bottled water and plastic cutlery are off the table as well, but the java capsules were specifically called out as problematic.
“These portion packs cause unnecessary resource consumption and waste generation, and often contain polluting aluminum,” wrote the guide’s authors.
The tiny containers are promoted by manufacturers and celebrities—such as George Clooney, who hawks Nespresso—for their convenience. But they “can’t be recycled easily because they are often made of a mixture of plastic and aluminium,” Jan Dube, a spokesperson for the Hamburg Department of the Environment and Energy, explained to BBC News on Friday. Germany’s recycling plants are similar to others around the world in that they don’t come with equipment that can separate a foil lid from the capsule’s plastic bottom.
The wastefulness of the product led John Sylvan, the founder of Keurig Green Mountain and the creator of the K-Cup, to admit last year that he regretted inventing the machine and pods. Although Keurig has said it intends to develop a recyclable pod by 2020, Sylvan had his doubts. “No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable,” he said. “The plastic is a specialized plastic made of four different layers.”
Dube also expressed concerns about the financial expense of single-use coffee pods to German taxpayers. “It’s 6 grams of coffee in 3 grams of packaging,” he said. “We in Hamburg thought that these shouldn’t be bought with taxpayers’ money.”
Roughly 13 percent of coffee purchases across Germany are of the single-use variety. It’s unclear how much cash the government office ban will save or how much litter will be kept from landfills. But Jens Kerstan, Hamburg’s senator for the environment, told BBC News that prohibiting the pods sends a message to manufacturers and to Hamburg’s 1.8 million residents that waste won’t be tolerated. “With a purchasing power of several hundred millions of euros per annum, the city can help ensure that environmentally harmful products are purchased less frequently,” he said.
As for whether the new rules in Hamburg will spread, there’s reason to hope. Germany’s Green Party, which has plenty of power in Hamburg, wields considerable influence across the nation and in the EU as a whole. Meanwhile, in the United States, consumers’ love affair with single-use coffee capsules seems to be cooling off. In February, Keurig announced its sixth consecutive quarter of declining sales of its machines.