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The not so OK-Cups

Canadians love their coffee.

Over 91% of Canadians drink some amount of coffee, at home or elsewhere, every day. Not surprisingly, the single-serve coffee market has emerged as a significant growth segment amongst consumers.

It is estimated that 27% of homes own single-serve brewers and use coffee pods, also known as k-cups. With convenience, however, comes increased waste, and consumers are starting to connect their love of the single-serve brewing machine with the guilt of the reality of the garbage can. With a whopping 10 billion coffee pods thrown away globally each year, consumers are starting to show signs that they are willing to simply walk away from the product.

The city of Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany, even opted to ban the use of single-serve coffee pods from its council buildings earlier this year. However, there are ways to create the opportunity for consumers to feel environmentally responsible, while continuing their affair with the single-serve coffee phenomenon.

Coffee pods first appeared in 1976 with Nespresso. In order to address the sustainability issue, most of the industry favoured reverse logistics, also known as recycling.

As such, early Nespresso adopters were expected to break up the product into several parts in order to make it a recyclable item, which, as it turns out, was seen as an unreasonable expectation for most consumers. It was quickly understood that the single-serve concept is convenience-driven, and a green supply chain solution ought to be equally convenient.

The compostable pod, a technology developed in Canada by the University of Guelph and championed by Club Coffee, a well-known food vendor based in Toronto, is now ready to be commercialized. This product is the only single-serve coffee pod that is designed to be digested by bacteria.

The design of the product requires coffee chaff to be reclaimed using bio-composite technology and a new bio-resin rings and lids, allowing food waste to be significantly reduced. Involving both business and academia, this project stands to make a significant innovative contribution to the market.

The path to launching this technology has not been easy. A combination of product development and social engineering, it appears that municipalities, the caretakers of the technology at the end of the products’ lifecycle, have been somewhat neophobic to the compostable pod.

However, with testing, municipal officials have come to realize that the product actually does break down as advertised, unlike other self-proclaimed recyclable food packaging products municipalities have been presented with in the past.

The real issues are composting stewardship and funding. The resistance to the compostable pod stems from the uncertainty around the funding model for waste collection between municipalities and governments, particularly in Ontario. Put simply, the municipalities are not pleased about how the funding model works; that is, composting is not funded, and recycling is. Municipalities expect some budgetary relief from the province in the new Bill 151, presented in November 2015. However doubts remain, and without some much needed clarity, waste will be continue to be generated.

While companies may come up with the best of technologies based on sound environmental values, the reality of the marketplace is much more complicated. Galen Weston recently endorsed the compostable coffee pods by Club Coffee at Loblaw’s recent annual general meeting and served it to guests in attendance.

This is a significant call out from Canada’s no.1 food retailer. For better pull, consumers should voice concerns and point to a better solution, which already exists. In this way, business cases for more improved and sustainable solutions in food packaging will only get stronger.

But this is just the beginning. With an aging boomer population and the number of people living alone steadily growing, the single-serve philosophy will be key in food innovation.

As compostable technologies in grocery stores are increasingly available to consumers, policymakers from all governments will need to find a new funding model in order to support enhanced composting facilities across the country.

Beyond composting, single-serve packaging may actually be edible in the future. Technologies developed by forward-thinking food companies could allow us to reduce the amount diverted household organic and nonorganic waste all together. While this would be a significant step forward, we need to first give these innovative thinkers a fighting chance.

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