This post is from KS contributing writer Becca Stallings of The Earthling’s Handbook, with photographs by Dan Efran.
How would you like to pay 8 times as much for a cup of coffee, drink endocrine disruptors along with your caffeine, and circle the Earth with junk that will never biodegrade? That’s a choice millions of Americans have made in the past few years.
The popularity of coffee pods blows my mind. I can see that they are very slightly more convenient than other methods of making coffee. But is that convenience worth the extra costs to your budget, our environment, and your health?
Here at Kitchen Stewardship we’re about helping you save money and time, while getting the best for your health and our environment. Which is why we want to offer you healthier, more affordable, green options for your morning coffee fix, that won’t take up too much extra time! Katie has challenged you to skip disposable coffee cups; now it’s time to talk about disposable coffee pods.
Nine billion K-cups were sold in 2015. Lined up, they could circle the Earth 10 times. And Keurig isn’t the only company making single-use coffee pods! Nespresso, which introduced the idea, has made about 27 billion.
Making recyclable K-cups is not the solution. Keurig is phasing in cups made of polypropylene (instead of a blend of undisclosed types of plastic) by 2020. But the cups are very small, so I wondered if recycling equipment would be able to handle them. I asked my brother, who recently operated a recycling company for 5 years. He says:
The recycling market for polypropylene is pretty shaky even for clean and large pieces. Recycling may be feasible in big cities, but for most of the country and world, it’s not feasible anytime soon.
Also, recycling coffee pods will require peeling off the foil top (which will still go to the landfill) and rinsing out the coffee grounds. If convenience is the reason people are using these things, are they really going to bother with those extra steps?
The Cost of Convenient Coffee
I entered the supermarket with an open mind. My only information on the cost of K-cups was based on working in an office where two varieties were available for 50c or 75c each to those who wanted them (and I didn’t). I didn’t know if the guy in charge was marking up the price to compensate for the cost of the machine and his effort in cleaning it and restocking the pods.
But I learned that the cost per coffee pod is 3 to 10 times the cost of a cup brewed from loose coffee! To make a really fair comparison, let’s look at the exact same coffee packaged both ways.
Folger’s Classic Roast K-cups are 36 for $21.99. Each pod makes one cup. That’s 61c each. (The shelf tag says 55.9c each; that’s a temporary sale price.)
Folger’s Classic Roast ground coffee is $10.29 for a canister of 1 pound 14.5 ounces. They say that makes “up to 240 cups.” The number of cups of coffee in a pound depends on how strong you like it…and I found a wide variety of estimates online…but the one that best matches my experience is 82 cups/pound, or 154 cups from that canister of Folger’s. That’s 7c per cup.
Now, let’s compare the very least expensive coffee pods to the very least expensive ground coffee. These aren’t necessarily equal in quality, style, or caffeine content.
Market District is a house brand but with a “foodie” slant. Market District K-cups are 48 for $21.99, almost 46c each.
My 12-year-old insisted that I’d find cheaper coffee pods at Target. He was right: Market Pantry coffee pods are 48 for $15.89…but that’s still 33c each. Furthermore, Target has lower prices than Giant Eagle (my neighborhood supermarket) on almost every variety of coffee, so you’d still save by buying loose grounds. Target’s very cheapest coffee is a few cents more than Giant Eagle’s:
Valu Time is the rock-bottom-price brand. Valu Time ground coffee is 1.9 pounds for $5.49. At 82 cups/pound, that’s 156 cups at less than 4c per cup, a little more than 1/10 the cost of the cheapest pods!
The New York Times estimates that coffee pods cost about 5 times as much as ground coffee of the same quality. Even if you brew it strong and want to say a pound makes just 36 cups of coffee, that can of Folger’s makes 67 cups at 15c each. Less than 1/3 the cost of the cheapest pods!
Cream, Sugar, and…Estrogen?
K-cups are made of plastic. Yes, they’re labeled BPA-free, but BPA is hardly the only dangerous chemical in plastics.
A team of scientists who tested 455 plastic food packages concluded, “Almost all commercially available plastic products we sampled—independent of the type of resin, product, or retail source—leached chemicals having reliably detectable estrogenic activity.” These are chemicals that act like estrogen in our bodies.
Estrogen is an important hormone for women, with a starring role in fertility and pregnancy. But too much estrogen harms our bodies, causing increased menstrual pain and blood loss, weight gain, breast and uterine tumors (usually non-cancerous but painful), fatigue, mood and memory problems, headaches, and hair loss.
In men, excessive estrogen has unmanly and unhealthy effects: erectile dysfunction, lowered sperm count, and increased testicular and prostate cancer.
In young girls, excessive estrogen can lead to early puberty. Most little girls don’t drink coffee–but their mothers might. Exposure to excess estrogen before birth increases a girl’s risk of breast cancer later in life.
Baby boys also can be affected by prenatal exposure to estrogen, increasing their risk of genital malformations.
Those scientists who tested the 455 packages also found that most plastics released more estrogenic chemicals when heated. A Keurig machine heats water in a plastic-lined reservoir and pumps it through plastic tubes into the plastic coffee pod. That means that even if you cut down the trash by choosing compostable coffee pods, your coffee is laced with estrogen! We are exposed to so many plastics in our everyday lives, it’s wise to avoid them when we can.
Another health concern: A coffee-pod machine does need to be cleaned–and consumers focused on convenience tend to forget to do that. The damp interior of a dirty coffee-pod machine can breed harmful bacteria or mold. (To be fair, this is an issue with drip coffeemakers, too.)
3 Ways to Brew Coffee Without Plastic
All right, so coffee pods are wasteful and bad for our health. Drip coffeemakers also have a lot of plastic parts and mold-growing zones, and disposable coffee filters make trash. What are some better choices?
Percolator: My Favorite Brewing Method
I’ve used an electric percolator at home and one at work for about ten years now. All the parts that touch the coffee are stainless steel. There’s no need for disposable filters, so the only trash is the coffee grounds, which are compostable.
An electric percolator offers “set it and forget it” convenience, automatically switching from brewing mode to keeping warm. It’s every bit as easy to use as a drip coffeemaker.
(There are also stovetop percolators, which need to be removed from the heat after perking. When used on a gas stove, these may be more energy efficient than an electrical appliance. I don’t have any experience with stovetop percolators, though, so this section is about electric percolators.)
Look for a model with the spout attached relatively low on the side. If it’s too high, some of the coffee that pours out is coming from above the filter basket and has grounds in it.
Measuring lines stamped into the sides of a percolator’s pot and filter basket make it easy to put in the right amount of water and grounds. If you don’t like the strength of coffee you get with these measurements, you can add water up to 6 and grounds up to 8 or whatever works for you. We think the measurements are about right.
Our tips for making great coffee in a percolator:
- Wet the bottom of the filter basket before you put in the grounds. (I dip it into the water in the percolator.) Otherwise, some grounds will sift through the holes into the water, creating grit at the bottom of your mug.
- A lot of steam comes out of the spout during perking. Put your percolator toward the front of the counter–if it’s under the cabinets, steam will damage the underside.
- Don’t leave it standing for a long time after brewing. In addition to burning electricity to stay warm, this makes the coffee bitter. When we’ve made more coffee than we’re going to drink right away, we pour the extra into an insulated carafe.
- As soon as possible after the percolator has cooled, take off the lid and remove the basket and stem. Wash out the pot and place it upside-down to drain. If you leave it wet a lot, the little well in the bottom of the pot can get rusty and short out the heating element.
- At least every couple of days–if not after every brewing–soak the lid, basket, and stem in hot soapy water and rinse thoroughly, or run them through the dishwasher.
- If routine cleaning isn’t enough to prevent coffee oil from building up on the parts (causing a bitter flavor), soak them in white vinegar and then scrub with a paste of baking soda and dish detergent.
In the office, I set up my percolator on a cork-backed, hard-surfaced placemat to protect my desk (which is real wood) from the heat and moisture. This mat doubles as my drying area after I wash my percolator and mug. I use the top piece of the basket to prop up the other pieces so that air circulates inside all of them, and they always dry completely overnight.
This simple method uses water that you’ve boiled in a kettle or pot. You pour the water onto coffee grounds in the French press, let it brew for a while, press the plunger to push the grounds to the bottom, and pour the coffee.
We had several French presses, but we kept breaking the glass part. We also felt that the coffee cooled too quickly in the winter. A stainless steel French press might do better on both scores.
Most French presses are both dishwasher-safe and easy to wash by hand. Every month or so, unscrew the pressing part and wash all the layers individually to remove old grounds and oil.
Pour-Over Coffee Makers
This may be the most affordable method of making real brewed coffee, and many people think it also gives the best flavor! As with a French press, you boil water separately and pour it in. Many models drip the finished coffee directly into your cup!
Pour-over is a great way to make just one cup of coffee, heating only as much water as you need. There are also multi-cup pour-over coffee systems.
Stainless steel pour-over coffee makers are now widely available. Their very fine mesh functions as a reusable filter. This is a healthier choice than the pour-over we own (our back-up coffee maker), a Melitta made from plastic that needs paper filters or a separate reusable filter, which is metal mesh but in a plastic frame.
This guide to pour-over coffee emphasizes precise timing and mindfulness. That’s fine. But what I like about pour-over coffee is the opportunity to multi-task! You pour in some water, crack your eggs, pour in some water, butter your toast…. You don’t have to do it perfectly to make drinkable coffee.
If I were shopping for a stainless steel pour-over coffee maker, I’d look for
- a model that sits directly on any mug (Who wants a special stand cluttering the kitchen?)
- a design that lets me see into the mug so I don’t over-fill it
- a warranty (I notice some online reviews complaining that the device fell apart after a short time.)
- advice on how finely to grind the coffee for best results with this particular filter.
Do we have to use freshly-ground coffee?
Percolators, French presses, and pour-over coffee makers all work best with somewhat coarsely-ground coffee. “The experts” advise grinding it yourself just before brewing. That does give you the best flavor.
But if you’re in a hurry and not a coffee snob, it’s fine to use pre-ground coffee. The important thing is that it not be ground so finely that the grounds go through the holes in the filter, creating sludge in the bottom of your cup! You want most of the grounds to be about the size of a pencil point, more “gritty” than “powdery.” (By the way, gritty coffee grounds are great for scrubbing stuck-on food off cast-iron pans!) Here are 3 ways to get the right size grounds:
- Buy coffee labeled “percolator grind.”
- Buy coffee at a store that sells whole-bean coffee and lets you grind it in the store. (Trader Joe’s, for example.) Some grinders have a setting labeled “percolator” or “French press”–if not, set it a notch or two coarser than the medium setting.
- Buy whole-bean coffee and a grinder. (We like this grinder.) When you have time, grind several days’ worth and store in an air-tight container.
My partner Daniel thinks it’s important to store ground coffee in the freezer to maintain the fresh flavor. I humor him. But for work, I fill a 2-cup glass jar with ground coffee and just keep it in my desk drawer for the 3-4 weeks it takes me to use it up, and I think it tastes fine!
What if each person wants a different flavor of coffee?
A lot of people like coffee pods because they can enjoy a special flavored coffee, and then the next person to use the machine can choose a different flavor, without those flavors lingering in the machine. I haven’t tasted enough pod coffee to tell whether this really works. But I know a simple solution to the question of how everyone can choose a different flavor!
Instead of using flavored coffee, brew plain coffee and then add flavor to each cup. Nearly all flavored coffees are made with artificial flavoring, which can be just about anything that isn’t food, and the label won’t tell you what it is. That’s kind of creepy! Why not flavor your coffee with something you recognize?
Try adding just a dash of any of these to your coffee:
These flavorings are more noticeable and taste a little better if you also add some sugar–but go easy on it! I think 1/8 to 1/4 tsp. of granulated sugar is plenty for a 10-ounce cup of coffee.
With cinnamon or ginger, I often use sorghum syrup as my sweetener. Dunk a chopstick into the jar of sorghum and then swizzle it in the coffee for nutritious sweetness without sticky mess!
Another option is to flavor and sweeten your coffee with pancake syrup. Choose a syrup with natural ingredients, like real maple syrup or Stonewall Kitchen Wild Maine Blueberry Syrup. Mix it into very hot coffee before adding milk.
You can, too, afford organic fair-trade coffee!
If coffee pods have gotten you accustomed to spending 61c a cup on coffee, you can actually save money by switching to more environmentally responsible coffee brewed in a more Earth-friendly way!
Organic means the coffee beans were grown without chemical pesticides and herbicides. Fair trade means the people who grew the coffee were not slaves and were paid a reasonable amount for their labor.
I buy Equal Exchange coffee at the member’s bulk discount price at my local food co-op: 5 pounds for $39.96 when it’s not on sale. That makes 410 cups at 9c per cup.
Unfortunately, my neighborhood supermarket doesn’t carry any organic fair-trade coffee by the pound! Perusing their coffee section again to research this article, I found only two types of organic coffee: compostable pods at 75c each (12 for $8.99 when not on sale) and ready-to-drink cold brew at $1.50 a cup (4 servings for $5.99). Neither of these is an affordable option.
Market District Direct Trade ground coffee is not organic but claims to be “responsibly grown.” The bag makes about 62 cups for $7.99 = 13c per cup.
Check your local stores for organic fair-trade coffee, and if they don’t have it, ask the manager to stock it. Meanwhile, Target and Trader Joe’s and Amazon carry several varieties.
I wish someone would sell organic coffee in a reusable, recyclable canister! The canisters Folger’s comes in now are very useful…but they’re plastic…but coffee bags are partly plastic, too. Coffee bags are difficult to recycle, but I’m trying to be part of the solution by heading a coffee-bag recycling brigade!