Mothers of Invention: Mother Parkers takes on cumulative effects, one tea serving at a time

Mother Parkers' new single-serve tea capsule. Coffee pods will be released next year.
Mother Parkers’ new single-serve tea capsule. Coffee pods will be released next year.

An article published April 10, 2014 by The Canadian Press addresses a matter that’s near and dear to my heart on multiple levels.

The article concerns tea and coffee company Mother Parkers, which has debuted a recyclable single-use tea and coffee pod to the market. The pod (sometimes referred to by the non-catchy title “K-cups”) are those small widgets one inserts in

to single-cup coffee makers such as the Keurig and Tassimo.

I own and use a Tassimo and gave a Keurig to a girlfriend so I’m knee deep in this guilty pleasure, producing my morning coffee and (sometimes) my afternoon tea with these devices. I rationalize my use of the convenient Tassimo by way of saying that I’m single, so it’s wasteful to brew a whole pot of coffee for one person, and that conventional coffee-making methods generate waste in the form of paper filters and grounds, though I’m perfectly aware that one can use metal filters that only require rinsing. I also have  “French Press” that generates no waste except for the grounds.

But I just don’t like to wait!!!

Okay, now that I’ve admitted all that, I must state that disposal of the pods has bothered me quite a bit. I suspect many people use their Keurig’s, Tassimo’s and other devices with nary a thought, but being in the waste and recycling business has conditioned me to be keenly aware that the current pods are difficult to recycle, and essentially not recyclable. The glueing of a foil lid to a plastic body is the design problem. And talk about a nasty combination: metals mined and smelted from the earth, and non-renewable plastic. Heck, even if you wanted to incinerate the items for their embodied energy, the metal foil would add pollution to the emissions.

While I personally may not generate a lot of these each year, when one considers the “cumulative effects” from adding up everyone’s combined consumption and discarding of these items, the impact is enormous. According to the CP article, the total thrown away each year is much bigger than I ever imagined.

Try this statistic on for size: In North America alone 10 billion of the capsules will be used this year. Take all the coffee pods used globally each year and lay them end to end and they’d circle the Earth 14 times!

That’s cumulative effects for you. Individually we don’t impact the Earth that much, but add it all together and, Whammo! we have a major pollution event, not only from throwing these items into landfills, but from the natural resource extraction of the raw materials (not to mention the replacement of bulk distribution with shipment and sale in pesky little containers, that are themselves sold in paperboard boxes).

The saddest part is that this is a “manufactured problem.” We’d happily brewed coffee for decades in conventional coffee makers, ever since baseball great Joe DiMaggio sold us the concept in those famous Mr. Coffee commercials in the 1970s. All that convenience seemed suddenly so slow and tedious. And the Keurig-type devices automate the process of producing gourmet coffee drinks like cappuccinos too.

So it’s with gratitude and mixed feelings that I received the news about Mother Parker’s new product. On the one hand, it’s a big step in the right direction, making single-serve coffee and tea pods that are recyclable and compostable. (When you think of it, these products should have been made recyclable from the beginning.) And the timing is good in Canada at least, with producers in certain provinces (e.g., BC) required to pay for end-of-life management of their products and packaging. I look forward to being able to place my pods in the recycling bin or return them to the supermarket soon, knowing they won’t end up in landfill.

But, on the other hand, I’m saddened that another needless waste stream has been created in the first place: one that uses more natural resources and all the energy inputs of shipping and recycling these small items.

I know that the best thing I could do is simply give up the Tassimo and perhaps even the coffee brewer, and use the simple French press (which I use anyway sometimes when I run out of K-cups) that only requires that I boil some water and add a few scoops of loose coffee. The Keurig, I’m told, works with “reusable” K-cups, which could go a long way toward solving my dilemma. I have a Tassimo now and wonder if I’ll have to replace it, which would be wasteful in itself.

I’ll think about that and decide later. First I need to, um, brew another cup of single-serve coffee…

Here’s the CP article:


Mother Parkers debuts recyclable single-use tea, coffee pods

The Canadian Press

Published Thursday, April 10, 2014 7:35AM EDT

TORONTO — A Canadian company is launching what it claims to be the world’s first recyclable capsules for coffee and tea, targeting consumers who love the convenience of their single-serve java boost but hate how the plastic pods end up in the trash.

Mother Parkers Tea & Coffee says the EcoCup is available with various loose-leaf teas, including the Higgins & Burke brand, while pods containing coffee will be out in early 2015. Both will be for use in Keurig brewing machines.

Co-CEO Paul Higgins says Mother Parkers has been developing the idea for the recyclable pods since 2006, as it recognized the growing concern over the environmental impact of the single-serve coffee habit.

“The premise we started out on was that we had to have a fabulous tasting product — that’s the key to any business success,” said Higgins Wednesday, following the products’ unveiling at a trade show in Chicago.

“Our second point was around the environment. The product itself leaves a big trail of waste and we knew that was going to be a hot consumer item.”

Higgins said as the popularity of the K-cups grew, so did the guilt.

“Consumers using it are feeling a great deal of remorse when they use it, but our lazy gene takes over and we just do it,” he said.

The Mississauga, Ont.-based company, which has 700 employees, says the EcoCups are made with clear polystyrene, as opposed to the hard plastic usually used to manufacturer the popular pods from Keurig Inc. After brewing a beverage, the user can detach the filter from the pod, discard the tea leaves or coffee grounds in a compost, and throw the pod into the blue bin.

Recycling facilities differ by municipality, but Mother Parkers estimates the capsules can be broken down in about 75 per cent of Ontario cities. It does not have national estimates.

Bill VandenBygaart, vice-president of business development, says ideally, the company wants to have a “zero-waste” product on the market in the next two years.

“This is the type of game-changing innovation that results from open competition and consumers are the ones who benefit,” he said in a statement.

Manufacturing the recyclable capsules, which are made in Mississauga, is more costly but the price difference would be “minimal” for the consumer, added VandenBygaart.

Mother Parkers’ EcoCups for tea will be available in Canada and the U.S. through Amazon later this week, and will be rolled out at major retailers and grocery stores this summer.

Canadians love a good cup of coffee, and single-use brewing machines have become commonplace in homes over the past few years. The availability and variety of the single-use brews has intensified since 2012, after patents held by Keurig Inc., which is owned by Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee, expired in 2012, allowing competitors to market and manufacture pods with their own private-labels.

Mother Parkers estimates there are 20 million Keurig brewers in North American residences, with 10 billion capsules expected to be used in 2014.

“It’s just so damn easy to make a cup,” said Higgins. “In under a minute, you can have a cup in your hand and have it ready to drink. If you have other coffee or tea preparation, you are talking about 3 to 10 minutes. As simple as it sounds… that it’s not a big deal from one minute to 5 minutes, those four minutes are like gold (to the consumer).”

A 2012 study by NPD Group found that although auto-drop machines were still the most dominate coffeemakers for the morning in-home brew, single-serve machines were the most popular in the afternoons, evenings and later at night. More than a quarter of Canadian coffee drinkers (27 per cent) said they sip coffee at home more than they did a year earlier.

In the U.S., the New York Times reported that sales of single-serve coffee machines, including brands like Keurig, Tassimo, and Nepresso, grew at a compound annual rate of 34 per cent from 2008 to 2013. Sales of coffee pods increased by a compound rate of 79 per cent over the same time period, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. Similar statistics for Canada were not immediately available.

Meanwhile, Keurig Canada says addressing the “environmental impact” of their machines is also a “critical priority” for the company.

“Innovation is at the heart of everything we do. We are dedicated to innovation around our brewing platforms — from new brands and product lines to more sustainable solutions,” said Valerie Ladouceur, a spokeswoman for the company in an email.

In 2012, the company launched the Vue brewing system in the U.S. in 2012, which uses capsules that can be recycled in 60 per cent of communities. It says it expects to bring fully-recyclable coffee or tea pods on the market by 2020.

Over the years, manufacturers have attempted to address the environmental impacts associated with single-use brewing machines, including offering reusable and refillable filters as an alternative to traditional plastic capsules.

Last July, a Richmond, B.C-based Canterbury Coffee introduced a 90 per cent compostable and biodegradable coffee pod. The company says the OneCoffee capsules use 40 per cent less plastic than traditional K-cups.


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