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A Green Quandary Over Used Single-cup Coffee Cartridges

Packaging for many food staples and virtually all snacks is loaded with recycling potential, and a lot of consumers, without much extra effort, participate in recycling programs to keep the stuff out of landfills.

Some widely used packaging, though, combines recyclables with materials that aren’t biodegradable or easily recyclable. Case in point is the one-cup coffeemaker container–the convenient cartridges of caffeine bliss that are marketed by Dunkin’ Donuts (NASDAQ:DNKN), Caribou Coffee (NASDAQ:CBOU), and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ:GMCR), whose subsidiary Keurig makes the popular K-Cup coffee and tea cartridges. As a recent Los Angeles Times blog post on the subject notes, K-Cup cups are plastic lined with a heat-sealed paper filter and covered with polyethylene-coated aluminum foil top–a product that will ultimately contain used coffee grounds and whose materials are difficult to separate and sort for recycling.

With total single-cup cartridge sales topping 9 billion, according to a Wall Street Journal report, pressure grows to address the capsules’ potential effect on the environment. Keurig, whose one-cup system is used by Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), also sells a reusable one-cup filter (called My K-Cup) and acknowledges the recycling issue on its website.

Michael Dupee, vice president for social responsibility at Green Mountain, told the Times that the company assesses all aspects of the product’s environmental impact, from the amount and type of materials used to their fate at the end of their lifecycle.

“A lot of people want us to make it in a certain way — biodegradable, compostable, reusable, zero carbon, modular for disassembly, recyclable,” he told the paper, adding that the company is examining the K-Cup’s overall environmental footprint, and noting that the “majority of the environmental impact of this product” is not its disposal.

Dupee also said he was not a liberty to discuss any changes to the K-Cup that might be in the works.

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