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Grounds for a brouhaha?: Keurig, Toronto spar over whether coffee pods belong in blue bin
Coffee pods are not acceptable in Toronto’s blue box recycling systems despite claims by Keurig Canada. It is unlikely these materials will ever be accepted for recycling leaving consumers confused by the claims of recyclability on the box.
Keurig Canada wants to tell every Torontonian they can put Keurig coffee “pods” in blue bins with paper, empty jars and other city-approved recyclables.
The City of Toronto wants every Torontonian to absolutely not do that and has told Keurig so. The java giant is nonetheless unleashing a public education campaign with advertising, social media and grocery store demonstrations on how Canadians can blue-bin the wee plastic cups.
The pod press comes at a delicate time for a Toronto recycling program on the ropes, which has plummeting revenues amid China and other recycling nations increasingly refusing to buy waste sullied by contaminants including coffee grounds.
Stakes are also high for Keurig Green Mountain Inc., which revolutionized home, office and hotel room coffemaking with push-down-brew machines. The Vermont-based company introduced polypropylene pods amid public anger at billions of its old “K-Cups” flooding landfills.
Jim McKay, the city official in charge of recycling, is “extremely concerned” by Keurig’s blitz given that 140 tonnes of pods from various firms already hit Toronto blue bins yearly. Other Canadian cities, most of which don’t recycle coffee pods, can also expect a surge in them.
“Part of the problem we have with recycling generally is there’s mixed messages out there and it’s just confusing the consumer and the resident,” McKay said in an interview. “They’re advertising within the city limits that (Keurig coffee pods are) recyclable when they’re actually not recyclable within the city limits. It’s misinformation at this point.
“We’re committed to continuing working with them and trying to find a solution, but telling people something is recyclable when it’s not accepted in the recycling program is just making the (contamination) problem worse right now.”
In an interview from Montreal, Keurig Canada spokeswoman Cynthia Shanks insists the new pods, easily readied for recycling by coffee drinkers, will be recycled by Canada Fibers Ltd., the company contracted to process Toronto recyclables.
“If consumers are peeling (foil tops) and emptying their coffee pods (into green bins) and then put their plastic pod in the recycling bin empty, it will be recycled in Toronto and it won’t add any cost or contamination …,” for the city, Shanks said.
“The ad campaign reflects our commitment to effective consumer education while also speaking to the financial investment that we’re willing to make to ensure that we drive true behavioural change and a positive impact on the environment.”
Keurig-funded tests at Canada Fiber’s facility found most cleaned pods made it through the sorting system and could be bundled and sold with other “No. 5” plastics, she said.
Canada Fibers directed questions to McKay, who did not dispute completely clean K-Cups in blue bins could escape a costly side trip to landfill. He said there are other factors why Toronto — not corporations — must control what joins the city’s recycling stream.
All recycling costs Toronto money and there’s no budget to start subsidizing coffee pods, he said.
McKay is skeptical Torontonians will clean pods enough to make them recyclable. He cites five steps including removing a paper filter and rinsing. A Financial Post columnist determined seven steps are required.
Most importantly, McKay said, Toronto can’t afford coffee grounds worsening a rate of non-recyclables in bins already rising past 25 per cent. Further contamination, under terms of the city’s contract with Canada Fibers, could cost city taxpayers millions more dollars per year.
“Organic material left in the pod will contaminate other waste in the bin. We’re already having problems with mixed paper and this could make more of it not sellable,” he said.
“We simply cannot afford to take the risk of further increasing the contamination,” McKay said, adding audits of Toronto blue-bin waste found 97 per cent of pods still contained coffee grounds.
His department will, in the next few months, advise city council on how to deal with the increasing number of companies demanding the city add products, including compostable pods. The producers should fund any tests, he says, plus any ongoing extra costs if the item is deemed recyclable.
The Ontario government is moving, slower than planned, to a system like that of British Columbia where producers are fully responsible for recycling waste, rather than only subsidizing municipal recycling as with the current Stewardship Ontario program. Keurig endorses the B.C. model.
Recycle BC, the not-for-profit industry agency that collects and processes recyclables province-wide and has a contamination rate of only 6.5 per cent, currently accepts all coffee pods.
“I don’t think it’s a huge component of our system but we’ve also been judicious about how much we’re promoting that,” said Allen Langdon of Recycle BC. “As more of the industry moves to a pod that’s recyclable … we’re going to be more aggressive in urging residents to empty out the organic material and put the pod in their recycling.”
Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario, says pods pose problems for municipalities because some are made from more than one plastic, and many recycling facilities have conveyor belts and optical scanners not built for such small packages.
“The irony is this particular package is made for convenience — that’s the point of single-serving coffee pods, they are convenient to use,” Godard said. “I’m not sure if consumers will respond to Keurig’s request they wait for the pod to cool off, separate compostable parts from the recyclable parts, and then use the bins accordingly.”