The Problem with Coffee Pods

The dark side of k-cups- health environmental and financial problems

I love coffee, though not for the caffeine… I just enjoy the taste. The research is divided on the reported health benefits of coffee, but those who tolerate it can generally drink it in moderation without a problem.

Coffee is a multi-billion dollar industry that has changed drastically in the last decade (and unfortunately not because coffee drinkers are moving back to real french press coffee makers).

The Rise of The Coffee Pod

Over the last decade, coffee pods have become increasingly popular for their convenience and novelty.

Though their inventor, John Sylvan, regrets creating them, and says he originally designed them for office use only, coffee pods (often called “k-cups”) are now a common fixture in many kitchens around the world.

An estimated 30+% of American households have a Keurig or similar coffee pod machine, accounting for an almost 5 billion dollar market last year.

Certainly, I can understand the appeal of an at-your-fingertips 24/7 coffee maker, but as most things that seem too good to be true… coffee pods have a dark side (and it isn’t just the dark roast they hold).

The Problem with K-Cups and Coffee Pods

There are several problems with coffee pods they you may not be aware of. They include:

The Environmental Factor

One of the reasons John Sylvan regrets creating K-cups? The environmental repercussions.

Coffee pods generate massive amounts of plastic waste each year. They are not biodegradable or recyclable (though some companies have started making biodegradable options).

So why is this such a big deal?

Last year, enough k-cups were sold that if they were placed end-to-end, they would circle the globe 10.5 times. And that is just the amount sold in one year! (source)

In fact, almost 10 billion individual coffee pods were sold in the last year and that number seems to be rising.

Some of the newer generation k-cups are recyclable, but you have to take them apart and separate the plastic, compost the coffee grounds and dispose of the top. Plus, most people aren’t even aware that some of them are recyclable.

With the rising levels of BPA and other plastic chemicals found in our groundwater, ocean water, and even buried under 30 feet of ice at the south pole, experts warn that these chemicals may be contributing to the rising health problems we are seeing worldwide.

Coffee pods alone are a significant source of plastic chemicals in landfills, and unfortunately, the their popularity only seems to be growing. This prompted one video team to make an exaggerated video encouraging people to “kill the k-cup:”

Warning: The video has some strong language so you might want to use headphones if kids are in the room. 🙂

Of course, this video is overly-dramatic, but it demonstrates the point that even those of us who don’t use k-cups are affected by the plastics being put into the environment.

To be fair, Green Mountain (who owns Keurig) announced plans to make their coffee pods recyclable by 2020, but that still means billions more plastic cups will enter the landfills in the next five years, and even if/when they are recyclable, many people won’t recycle them.

Health Ramifications

Equally menacing are the potential health concerns associated with disposable coffee pods.

Plastics…

They are plastic, so all the usual problems associated with consuming foods or drinks in plastic containers apply, but are actually intensified because hot liquid is used, allowing more plastic chemicals to transfer into the coffee.

The plastic chemicals like BPA, BPF, BPS and Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors and may contribute to hormone imbalance, weight gain and fertility problems. Though Keurig recently confirmed that its pods are BPA free, they did test positive for estrogenic activity and may also contain polystyrene, a possible carcinogen.

Aluminum:

The top of these k-cup coffee pods is usually made of aluminum, which has some health concerns of its own and which may be bad for the brain. Aluminum exposure has been linked to Alzheimers, depresion, anxiety, autism and even autoimmune disease.

Mold, Algae and Biofilms?

Microbiologist Erin Chamerlik pointed out that Coffee pod machines are also a prime growing environment for mold, mildew, algae and biofilms.

The instruction manual of these machines states that once filled with water, the internal tank and lines cannot be drained, creating a perpetual dark, warm and moist environment.

These molds and biofilms bring their own health concerns and are almost impossible to eradicate. Hot water is not enough to kill them, nor is the acidity of coffee. Some sources recommend running several cycles with diluted vinegar, but lab testing has shown that this is not enough to remove the mold and biofilms.

To be fair, this problem is not limited to single-use coffee makers. Almost all coffee makers can be a source of mold and biofilms, and even 50% of coffee mugs tested contained mold spores or even fecal bacteria.

Financial Issues

If the health and environmental aspects aren’t enough to convince you, individual coffee pods are an absolutely horrible deal.

Of course they are convenient, but with as little coffee that is in each pod, a pound of coffee would cost over $50!

Even the highest quality single-sourced organic coffees don’t usually cost this much, and many of us pay that for low-grade, plastic and aluminum coated, environment wrecking pods!

If budget is an issue, these should be the first to go!

K-cups and Coffee Pods: The Solution?

Don’t buy a coffee pod brewing machine. If you have one, get rid of it.

Sure, the convenience can’t be beat, but they aren’t worth the health, environmental and financial downsides. Increasing levels of plastics in landfills is becoming a massive global issue, and this is one major source.

Of course, I’m a coffee drinker and I’m not advocating avoiding coffee, just brewing it in an environmentally and health conscious way (that also tastes much better, for the record). If you absolutely can’t part with your Keurig, at least consider buying biodegradable options like these that can be composted (bonus: they are cheaper too!) or using a reusable pod.

What I Do

K-cups take about a minute to brew, and my eco-friendly and much healthier version only takes about two minutes… plus, the taste is absolutely worth the extra minute of prep time.

I use a glass electric water kettle and a glass and stainless french press for coffee brewing.

I heat the water to almost boiling in the electric kettle. This takes about 30-seconds. While that is heating, I grind fresh organic coffee beans and place them in the bottom of the french press.

I pour the water into the french press and stir with a wooden spoon. After about 60-90 seconds, I push down the filter on the french press and have delicious fresh-brewed coffee sans plastics, aluminum or biofilms.

(Or, if you’re like my Italian husband who prefers espresso, get an old school stainless stove-top espresso maker.)

Confession: I did at one time have a coffee pod brewing machine. I used reusable pods or biodegradable ones, but after researching the various health and environmental problems with these machines, I returned to our beloved french press and could not be happier.

Are you a coffee drinker? How do you make it?

You May Also Enjoy These Posts...

Reader Interactions

It Shouldn’t Be This Hard to Be Healthy…

Become a Wellness Mama VIP member for free and get access to my handbooks & quick start guides to help you detox your home, become a master of home remedies, make beauty products from scratch, and conquer mealtime madness!

Yes! Let me in!

Wellness Mama widget banner

Reader Comments

  1. Thank you for this detailed article. I agree with you 100%, Katie! These machines are everywhere and it drives me crazy! We’ve never purchased/used a coffee pod machine. It never interested us for all of the above reasons. We either use a French press or a traditional coffee maker, or in the summer months, a shaker or blender for cold coffee.

  2. Just fyi: I think you need to have a warning above that video that it contains foul language. I turned it on with my kids in the room. 🙁

  3. I have the Keurig, but I don’t buy k-cups. Mine came with a My K-cup, so I can buy and grind my own coffee ??

    • We do too. We don’t purchase pods, we use use and grind organic coffee.

      • Me too…with my “original version” ~ 2011 Keurig I use it with a reusable pod that I put my own coffee in. I also use the Keurig with “no pod” simply for a cup of hot water for tea or hot chocolate. I do a vinegar/salt rinse often to keep all the insides clean. This works for me, and I refuse to buy the K-cups for all the reasons stated! Once it ” dies” I will never buy another. What really infuriates me is that the “new” Keurigs have a pod style that you can’t use the reusable pod in! How awful is that, they are forcing people to buy the pods that are going to landfills. It must be where the $ is! Capitalism at its best.

        • Wow! These companies are amazing. No scruples! Somewhere in that company there’s an actual person who’s overcome with greed and should be ashamed of themselves.

          • I beg to disagree and don’t think that capitalism is the source of greed. 🙂 There’s certainly some greed associated with societies that are less capitalistic than we are. It’s a part of man’s basic condition: sinful. See Romans 3:23

            Thank you for the information on these machines.

  4. I pegged these things as an environmental catastrophe in the making when I first saw them, it’s too bad most people either have no clue or don’t care about the consequences of their ‘consumer’ decisions…these sources of plastics are lethal to wildlife and I’m sure millions of them are now floating in the great oceanic garbage patches all over the planet…we are so doomed 🙁

    http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/

  5. We got turned on to Turkish coffee some time ago, and I am really spoiled! It takes a little longer, but is 100% worth it. Fill the turkish pot (copper with a long handle) with cold water. Add two drops of rose water and two drops of orange water. Add 1/2 to 1 tsp of honey. Add 2 heaping TBS of good Turkish coffee (you can use any high quality coffee if it is ground really fine, like powdered sugar. Most electric grinders won’t get it small enough, but most grocery store grinders have a Turkish coffee setting). Don’t stir yet. Put pot on burner on medium. Wait for the coffee to sink and then stir a couple of times. Wait until coffee foams and begins to raise. Pour into Turkish coffee cups or espresso cups and enjoy! It is strong like espresso but not bitter. You can make it sweeter to taste, but since we don’t eat much of anything sweet, we don’t like things very sweet.

  6. We use the San Francisco biodegradable pods that you mentioned 🙂 They cost 5 cents more per cup of coffee than what we were brewing before. Plus it takes about 20 seconds to make, compared to our old espresso machine. Packing espresso each time seemed way too tedious with a baby on the arm. As with all things in life, sometimes it’s worth it 🙂

  7. Can you write an article about the Nespresso aluminum capsules? I’d love to know more about the dangers of those.

  8. When I had one, I spent time cutting them open and we would put the grounds in the compost. I got fed up with the cost of all of it…when it finally died, I went to a french press but now I have a normal coffee. Whenever I see someone buying one, I really want to tell them it is not worth the money!!!

  9. I’ve been using an AeroPress for the past several years. I make a large mug in the morning and refrain from any more during the day, even though I’d love some more. The AeroPress makes a really smooth cup of coffee and I look forward to it every morning. I used to really enjoy the occasional cup from coffee shops but this beats them all. The only drawback is that it’s plastic. I am going to go back to my French Press and see if I can enjoy it as much.

    My son just got a Bialetti stovetop coffee maker that he absolutely raves about. As much as I’d like to use one, they only have aluminum pots and I am not going THERE.

    • They do make them in stainless steel and so do a few other brands (Google stainless steel stovetop coffee maker and you’ll find a bunch). These make coffee that’s just as good as the aluminum version. If you like a stronger espresso-like coffee, this is the way to go. I’ve tried all different kinds of makers, including French presses and the stovetop beat all as far as taste goes. It also eliminates much of the acids that French presses allow.

  10. Your affiliate link to the glass coffee maker has a plastic lid. That plastic lid will collect condensation, leaching the very chemicals you’re talking about into the water.

    But I’m one of those people that is kind of tired of hearing about plastic plastic plastic. I agree with you don’t get me wrong. The problem is everything in our world is plastic. You can’t get away from it. All these people who buy everything in cardboard did they know that it’s coated in plastic on the inside? If we Take a look at all your organic items in our cupboard and fridge I’m betting there in plastic.

    The majority of the items in our houses have plastic in them. Everything seems to be created with plastic. If it’s not created in plastic I bet you it was packaged in plastic. ?

    I used to get on my soapbox about plastic and how horrible it was until I finally started to look at round and realized you can’t get away from it. And you know what… plastic actually also saves lives.

    Does this mean I won’t try to be a little more cautious in my life? Of course I’ve been more cautious but the irony in it all makes me giggle.

    All that being said even occurred to me to get rid of my stupid coffee maker . Wink wink!!

  11. My mother-in-law loves her K-cup machine. I don’t get it. After we hassled her about the waste of the little cups she got a refillable. So now it’s a little less wasteful, but now it seems like it’s way less convenient than a regular coffee maker. And I don’t think it makes a very nice cup of coffee.

    At home, I make my own cold brewed coffee – it couldn’t be easier and it’s delicious! I mean, seriously great. It’s rich, full bodied and low acidity. I eyeball the recipe – but it’s an easy google if you ever try it. I throw fresh grounds into a pitcher and fill it with water. I let it sit on the counter overnight and strain it through one of those gold reusable coffee filters. I nuke it to get it hot – but in the summer I just pour it over ice. I store whatever is left over in the fridge and only have to make coffee every three or so days. At this point, I’m sort of bummed if I drink a cup of coffee made any other way.

    I urge everyone to at least try it once. It’s super easy and really does taste great.

    • Lydia, thank you for the cold brew post! I used to make my coffee this way, and completely forgot about it once the Keurig came into play. It made such a smooth brew!

      I’ve been worried about the wastefulness/safety of the plastic cups for some time. This is the perfect solution.

      Thanks!

    • I agree with you Lydia. A cold brewed coffee is absolutely the best for taste. I purchased a kit at the coffee shop called “Coffee Toddy”. You simply layer cold water and coffee in a container with a filter at the bottom. Let it sit for 12 hours and then remove the plug at the bottom. It will drain out into a 2 quart glass jar and you then store it in the fridge. It is so concentrated that you only have to add a couple of tablespoons of liquid to your coffee cup and fill with water. I use the water in my husband’s Keurig machine. The taste difference is remarkable.

    • Son in law makes cold brewed coffee and it is delicious hot OR cold, no matter the brand of coffee.

  12. I use a stainless steel stovetop espresso maker primarily. You can make either espresso or strong coffee with it and somewhere I read (but have no proof) that it is the healthiest way to brew coffee. The advantage is that you wash it after every use as opposed to a drip coffee maker that can become moldy or mildewy (not a real word, but….) I also use a French Press from time to time and just ordered a Presse Maker by Bobble. It’s kind of a cross between a French Press and a Aeropress. I’m looking forward to the portability that it offers.

  13. People get so judgy about coffee, geez! I have two Keurigs; one at home, one at work. I love and use them both multiple times a day. You can get reusable cups that can be washed and used again and again. The kids love to have instant hot water to run through for hot chocolate and tea. It’s very convenient! The only waste is the coffee grounds when you’re done, and a lot of people save those to mix in with soil, etc.

  14. We love our French press! It feels like a luxury to make a cup of coffee in the morning, and my husband knows I was thinking of him when I prepare a cup for him right before he gets home from work. It doesn’t make too much, so I’m not guzzling coffee all day long. It doesn’t stay hot, so I only have a cup with breakfast. Oh, and I’m pregnant and cannot stand the smell of burnt coffee. You don’t get burnt coffee with a French press! (Of course I only use decaf during pregnancy, and I don’t drink it every day.) Everyone who visits thinks it’s such a novelty to have the coffee pot of the table, or to be delivered breakfast in bed. I just think it makes our home feel a little more focused on people versus a machine.

  15. I received a pod machine as a Christmas present two years ago. It was a source of marital friction, as I would have turned around and given it to the Salvation Army by New Years but hubby loves its gadgety appeal. My compromise is that I use stainless steel brewing cup/filters – a lot like the reusable filters you can buy for regular coffee makers, in miniature. So no added cost, no plastic, no garbage, no aluminum and the little cups are easier to clean out than the french press. Given my choice I’d just boil water in a stainless steel pot, add coffee and pour it through my little strainer, but I guess I have to bow to technology once in a while.

    • Karen,
      This has been a source of marital friction for us as well *sigh*. But then a lot of the healthier, more natural changes I’ve been trying so hard to make in our home have caused a lot of strife as well. Just wanted to let you know you are not alone in that boat! Keep on keeping on, and only die on the hills that matter most! Lol ?

  16. Just thought to add, the other reason I don’t like the machine is that they’re not reliable, especially with hard water. Our machine has a 1-year warranty and even with vinegar cleaning, we’ve already replace it – don’t get me started, marriage is a long and rocky road 😉 – twice. It’s not just the cups that wind up in the land fill, it’s millions of these big bulky plastic machines. The mountain Keurig built.

  17. I love our Keurig, but very quickly realized that I wasn’t willing to spend the $$$ on the ready-made pods of any brand. The plastic waste issue is why I have re-usable shopping bags and don’t drink bottled water!

    We bought several refillable pods and I grind my own coffee. It’s quick, easy and the reusable pods have already lasted the better part of the year with no wear and tear showing at all.

    That doesn’t address the skeevy issues of inside the coffee maker itself which sort of has me concerned, though 🙁

  18. I always wanted one, but could never justify the price of the k-cups. Now I’m glad I never got one! I love my french press or regular ole Cuisinart coffee maker.

  19. I knew this article was coming! I have a K-cup brewer and from the beginning I wondered about the plastic and how safe it was to heat the coffee grounds. We do recycle the plastic – my husband even gets the K-cups from work and goes through the steps of composting the grounds, rinsing the plastic cups and then throwing them into the recycling bin. It’s a lot of work! I think a french coffee press may be in our future. Thanks, Katie for confirming what was in the back of my mind every time I made my cup of coffee:)

  20. This makes me so sad because I absolutely LOVE my Keurig and the cheap, organic pods at Aldi. I am such a zombie in the morning, the convenience is great, especially because of getting kids ready. I think I will ask for a “pour over coffee maker” for Christmas. Anyone try that? I hear that the taste cannot be beat with that method and some craft coffee.

    • While visiting our friends, they made us very yummy coffee using the pour over method. I’m looking for one to use at home!

    • We’ve had the melitta pour overs for years. But we have the plastic ones and only use them when only one person wants a cup of coffee. Two or more and the Mr. Coffee drip is used. But its well is plastic and we are more aware of heat and plastic being a lousy pair. Will have to look for the ceramic pour over. Thanks for sharing.

  21. What are your thoughts on the reusable pods that allow you to fill them with your own coffee? The latest Keurigs won’t accept them, but most do.

    • I’ve tried the reusable filter that came with my Kurig, but found it made a lousy tasting cup of jo. 🙁

  22. I’ve been hearing about the unhealthy things in Keurig’s but was avoiding the articles so I wouldn’t know. (Lame, I know.) I have one but I don’t use it very often. Instead I have a stove top percolator that I absolutely love because it produces no waste at all except the coffee grounds that I compost. I guess I may be getting rid of my Keurig. I’m out of k-cups anyway. 😉

  23. Why doesn’t anyone mention a regular good old fashioned percolator? I just got rid of my old plastic coffee maker and went for the stainless steel percolator. I see French press suggestions over and over,, but why? Just to be fancy? Gimmicky? Love love love the percolator and feel so much better about my coffee now.
    Absolutely love your site and all your info. Thanks so much for all you do. I learn so much 🙂

    • Yeah, my neighbor uses a percolator and her coffee is delicious! Thanks for reminding me – I’m going to get one.

  24. After reading your article I followed the link and just ordered a French Press. When we’d originally gotten our pod maker I had been told you could recycle the pods. We always cut the top off and get the coffee grounds out to be put in the compost…then put the pods in the recycle bin. I should have done my research more before getting sucked in by all the hype. Not only from the pods not being recycled, but thinking of the plastic “gunk” that now resides in our compost pile.
    When you know better, you do better. Thank you for the article 🙂

  25. Great article, thank you. Speaking of biofilms and mold, do you suppose my Bunn coffee maker is at risk for the same thing? It has a hot water reserve tank for faster brewing. Yikes!

  26. Thanks so much for this article! My husband and I have avoided these kinds of coffee machines for years for the above reasons. So glad someone’s talking about this! Whenever we mention our thoughts to other people they look at us like we must be crazy for avoiding keurigs. THANK YOU!!!!

  27. This article confirmed my decision about not buying one of these machines. I thought they were a great idea, plus seemed super convenient, but the plastic and hot water combination concerned me enough not to want to replace our broken coffee maker with another plastic one. So, after much research we decided to give Chemex a try. We never looked back. It is a very simple and quick way to make a coffee that is great. It’s basically pouring boiling hot water over your coffee grounds in a glass pot. We even switched to cloth filters instead of having to replace the paper ones all the time. It’s also much cheaper than most coffee makers. They do come in different sizes, ours makes coffee for two people fairly quickly, although my husband and I usually just make one mug at a time since we drink at different times and different coffees. If you regularly make multiple mugs at a time, I’d recommend buying a larger size in order to make coffee faster.

  28. Ceramic “pour-overs” are the way to go! (I was secretly ecstatic when our household Keurig died… and thrilled when my husband agreed we could live without another.) 🙂

  29. I make my coffee with a Melitta pour-over. I line it with a paper filter, add grounds, pour water off-the-boil over the grounds, and in minutes I have The Best Cup of Coffee. I have a French Press and like that too, but I find this method simpler, I guess. Here’s the link: http://amzn.to/1eyc2fq

    They make a porcelain pour-over cup too.

  30. I have never been interested in owning a pod brewer. I think I have had a total of 3 beverages (2 hot cocoa and 1 herbal tea) from business or friends machines. I don’t find that it tastes any better than coffee or tea brewed he regular way.

  31. Hi Katie! Thank you for all the time and research you put into your website. I read this article and appreciated the added note for the Italians who prefer espresso. 🙂 I was wondering if you had found in researching coffee makers if the semi-automatic espresso machines that grind fresh beans are comparable to an old school stainless stove-top espresso maker.

  32. the link to organic coffee you have in this article, is listed on thrive and has a warning label that the coffee contains chemicals that knowingly cause cancer and other disruptors……
    I would encourage you to research this coffee and not promote it. I have taken your advice on other areas and trusted your opinions, so this was a little concerning for me.

  33. Hi! I love reading your blog for helpful/healthful everyday tips. What do you think of the Chemex pour over brewing system? Are the natural/unbleached filters safe?

    Thank you!

  34. I have a keurig but since I first got it, I bought a reusable pod that I can fill with my own organic coffee. I’ve tried a French press before, but you have to put in a large amount of coffee compared to a spoonful or two in my reusable pod for the keurig. Maybe if you’re having a couple cups of coffee it’s good, but for one cup in the morning it’s more work and more wasted coffee, at least for me. I do wish more people were aware of the reusable pods instead of always buying them though.

  35. I use a stainless steel PRESTO electric percolator, made in the USA. The pot is washed out daily, before each use. I, also, use a glass kettle with a stainless steel lid (from Germany) to heat water for tea. I try to avoid plastic and waste throughout the day. I’ve gotten weird about these things. It’s amazing how many items are plastic and made in China.

  36. I use a stainless steel percolator by Presto. AMAZING coffee and all food surfaces are stainless!! ? Win!!

  37. Thanks for the great article. We’ve never owned a Keurig machine but love our coffee press!

  38. My husband and I love coffee. We have a master bean roaster close to our town so we are blessed to get fresh roasted organic coffee beans on a weekly basis. Out favorite method is french press followed by the Chemex method but we also love the Nespresso machine. Do you have some info on the health safety of these machines? I think the pods are made from aluminum but I am not sure. The good nes is that we can take the used pods to the Nespresso boutique and they will recycle them.

    • We’ve just started using the Chemex and I really like it. I’ll be writing more on this topic soon 🙂

  39. Thank you for your article, it was informative and the video is just far out! I’d never heard of K-cups (I’m in small town New Zealand). I’ve loved coffee for years and just discovered the pleasure of roasting green (organic, fair trade) coffee beans in a pop corn maker. Regarding making the coffee I found that the glass part of French presses got broken too often so I use a stainless steel tea pot: I put it on the stove for three minutes after adding the ground coffee and boiling water. Then I pour it through a strainer like an old fashioned cup of tea! 🙂