Pitfalls of Single-Cup Coffee Makers

Your next door neighbors bought one last month. Your friend has one listed on her wedding registry, and your office has had one for a while. So, it’s no surprise that you find yourself wondering why you don’t own a single-cup coffee maker yet. With the fast pace of our daily lives and the need for speed and convenience, the lure of a machine that can produce a perfect cup of coffee in a short amount of time is strong. On the other hand, is the one-cup coffee maker the answer to our need for java perfection in seconds flat, or merely a passing trend? Moreover, how does its use impact the environment?

Too Hot To Handle

What could be the downside of an appliance that produces such perfection? One issue is the single-cup brewer’s current safety record. In February of this year, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and its Canadian equivalent, Health Canada, announced a voluntary product recall of Tassimo Single-Cup Brewers.

The recall (which involved more than 1.7 million Bosch and Tassimo Professional branded coffee brewers) states that “the plastic disc, or T Disc, that holds the coffee or tea can burst and spray hot liquid and coffee grounds or tea leaves onto consumers using the brewer and onto bystanders, posing a burn hazard.” Evidently, there were 140 reports of incidents where consumers were sprayed with a hot substance from the Tassimo machines, including 37 reports from consumers who received second-degree burn injuries connected to this product.

How Green Is Your Cup?

Another issue is the single-serve coffee maker’s green quotient. Keurig, a subsidiary of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, is the maker of the top selling (but non-recyclable) K-Cup. According to the company’s website, the manufacturing requirements of the K-Cup pack (an aluminum foil top, a filter, and the cup itself) currently make recycling difficult.

Keurig also claims on its website that although the pack’s components are necessary to prevent the elements from damaging the coffee’s quality, they “are actively working to meet the challenge of creating a pack that reduces environmental impact and continues to deliver an extraordinary cup of coffee.”

It’s certainly welcome news that the producers of the K-Cup are conducting ongoing sustainability efforts. Yet, due to the popularity of single-cup coffee makers, the environmental issue created by non-recyclable K-Cups may get worse before it gets better. According to a study from the National Coffee Association, next to conventional drip brewers, single-serve coffee is currently the second most popular method of coffee preparation. The data from their study illustrates the upward trend: 4 percent of the cups of coffee consumed in the United States in 2010 were made with a single-serve brewer. In 2011, those consuming coffee made with a single-serve brewer rose to 7 percent.

As the number of Americans who brew their coffee in single-cup coffee makers continues to rise, the amount of non-recyclable plastic sitting in landfills will inevitably grow. To address the environmental and energy concerns of each production stage of their K-Cup, Keurig conducted their own life-cycle analysis which uncovered a considerable challenge for them. If the company decides to replace their current K-Cup with one that is recyclable, the new material needs to prevent moisture and air from making the coffee lose its freshness, endure the heat of 186-degree water and be simple for the brewing device to perforate without shattering.

You Light Up My Life

Considering the enormous amount of coffee that’s prepared on a daily basis in the U.S., it’s a good thing that coffee makers don’t put too much strain on our energy grids. As a result, they are not required to have the EPA/U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Star system that most of us are accustomed to seeing on large household appliances. Despite this, the use of conventional drip brewers are not as earth-friendly as they could be. One reason is the use of disposable, bleached paper coffee filters. A more suitable option is the unbleached variety, and better yet — permanent coffee filters.

Single-serve coffee manufacturers are known to point to the waste involved with conventional drip coffee makers, citing the large amount of unused coffee that sometimes ends up going right down the drain. Nevertheless, brewing coffee one cup at a time — especially for a group — uses more energy than a typical 12-cup brewer might, not to mention the fact that each cup that is individually brewed also produces one unit of non-recyclable waste.

One Person’s Trash Is Another Person’s Treasure

Those who favor one-cup brewers will sometimes admit that they made the switch from traditional drip brewers because they are annoyed by the clean up associated with them. The heart of this complaint centers around old coffee grounds. Yet coffee grounds are the picture of sustainability. They have numerous eco-friendly and practical uses that include composting and fertilizing agent, pest control, natural deodorizer throughout the home and even as a hair rinse that adds shine and softness.

Coffee’s For Closers

When it comes to pricing, single-cup coffee makers hold the distinction of brewing an expensive cup. One example is Folgers Black Silk blend for a K-Cup brewed-coffee machine: 12 pods cost $10.69, which breaks down to more than $50 a pound. By comparison, consumers are accustomed to paying significantly less for a pound of coffee purchased from grocery stores.

Although this creates a cost issue for some, it doesn’t seem to impact others. According to a Wall Street Journal report, total single-cup cartridge sales topped $9 billion. The popularity of the K-Cup has steadily increased since its introduction in 1998, with one analyst anticipating profits to progressively increase through 2018. Other well-known coffee brands such as Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts now offer some of their blends in K-Cup packs. Starbucks recently announced that it is jumping into the one-cup brewer market, and is scheduled to introduce its own version, called the Verismo, in time for the 2012 holiday season.

How Do You Take Your Coffee?

If you’re uncertain if a single-cup coffee maker is an appliance you should purchase, it may help to contemplate your coffee brewing preferences. Are you interested in sheer convenience? Or are the characteristics of your daily coffee experience what matters to you most? Either way, scrutinizing your coffee brewer’s impact on the environment may be an eye opener for you. One thing that you can erase from your worry list is feeling guilty about drinking more than one cup of coffee a day. The newest research on coffee consumption and mortality supports a reason for you to enjoy multiple cups of java during a 24 hour period. A new NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study reports that women who consumed six cups of coffee or more a day had a 15 percent lower risk of dying; for men, it was 10 percent lower.

Related Stories:

Declining Coffee Production Is Climate Change’s Canary In the Coal Mine

A “Better” Cup of Coffee by Putting People First

Does Coffee Protect You From Cancer?

Photo Credit: mconnors


Ann M
Ann M11 months ago

still using my little four cup maker, works well for me and I get a big mug!

Jim Ven
Jim Vabout a year ago

thanks for sharing.

Fi T.
Past Member 3 years ago

Love our environment like we do so to our home

Ruth Ann W.
Ruth Ann W4 years ago


Cindy Roett
Cindy Roett5 years ago

Keurig's cups are not recyclable therefore they will not be on my list of coffee machine purchases.

Ann G.
Ann G5 years ago

While your environmental points are good as relating to recycling, I think it is important to note that each cup of coffee requires 35 gallons of water to make. Is there not the possibility that someone using a conventional coffee machine might make extra coffee and then decide not to use it? If a single-cup system can prevent that much water from being wasted, then there is definitely a benefit to single-cup systems.

Jessica Nielsen
Jessica Nielsen5 years ago

I might drink five to ten cups of coffee a /year/. Because of the health issues I have. And that's when my parents randomly go to Starbucks or I'm at a Winter Writer meeting for NaNoWriMo.

So...no. They smell delicious, but I don't even own a regular coffee machine.

J.L. A.
JL A5 years ago

another fad that is part of the planned obsolesence consumer approach......wish we could reverse that trend and make it less viable

Dawn R.
Colleen J5 years ago

WTF? I don't even know what product this article is referring too. Sounds like a big waste of money that makes a ton of garbage. Just get a two cup drip coffee maker if you only want a little.
Long time ago I bought a hemp fabric coffee filter that could be washed and re-used. So no garbage either. :)