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.
Equally menacing are the potential health concerns associated with disposable coffee pods.
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.
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.
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?
Discussion (60 Comments)
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!!
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.
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!!!
Can you write an article about the Nespresso aluminum capsules? I’d love to know more about the dangers of those.
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 🙂
Jessica, I didn’t even know biodegradable pods existed! Not surprised they are available in SF though 🙂
Yes, plastic is tough to avoid nowadays. I use this: https://us.consiglioskitchenware.com/collections/stainless-steel-stove-top-espresso-makers
They are expensive but make a killer espresso. They last a lifetime! I’ve had mine for 10 years!
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.
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 🙁
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.
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. 🙁
Katie - Wellness Mama
Just added one, thanks 🙂
There was a warning! Right above the video 😀 Thanks for this awesome post! It would great if these containers would be biodegradable/compostable at least! There are reusable ones available: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000DLB2FI/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B000DLB2FI&linkCode=as2&tag=wellnessmama-20&linkId=EIRZPGQHRZT7X5WA
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.