In battle for coffee pod market, it’s Keurig vs. recyclables

In this photo taken Wednesday, March 4, 2015, John Rogers displays a single-serve coffee pod at the Rogers Family Company in Lincoln, Calif. The Rogers company, coffee roasters who among their products makes biodegradable single-serve coffee pods for use in the Keurig Green Mountain's single-serve coffee machines. The Rogers company is one of more than a dozen-coffee-makers and other businesses suing Keurig over what they claim is Keurig's unfair trade efforts to shut out competing single-serve coffee rivals.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

LINCOLN, California (AP) — An environmental battle over U.S. coffee giant Keurig Green Mountain’s $5 billion-a-year plastic pods has become so heated that the company’s opponents are using galactic comparisons.

Keurig, the single-serve coffee industry’s leader, produced enough plastic coffee pods last year to circle the earth more than 10 times, according to one analyst’s estimate, often cited by Keurig’s critics. A YouTube parody depicts aliens that look like Keurig’s plastic pods invading Earth.

The company introduced a new coffeemaker in time for Christmas that allowed only its pods, and the battle heated up again. It spawned parodies featuring Star Wars-style rebels challenging the “Keurig Empire” by hacking a machine to accept more environmentally friendly pods made by rivals.

In this photo taken Wednesday, March 4, 2015,  single-serve coffee pods, made of  biodegradable materials, are moved by conveyor for packaging at the Rogers Family Company in Lincoln, Calif. The  Rogers company is one of several coffee roasters who make single-serve coffee pods for use in the Keurig Green Mountain's single-serve coffee machines. The Rogers Company is one of more than a dozen-coffee-makers and other businesses suing Keurig over what they claim is Keurig's unfair trade efforts to shut out competing single-serve coffee rivals.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
In this photo taken Wednesday, March 4, 2015, single-serve coffee pods, made of biodegradable materials, are moved by conveyor for packaging at the Rogers Family Company in Lincoln, Calif. The Rogers company is one of several coffee roasters who make single-serve coffee pods for use in the Keurig Green Mountain’s single-serve coffee machines. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Keurig’s product is reshaping the $40 billion U.S. coffee industry. Its annual report said it accounted for 30 percent of retail coffee sales last year. More than one in five U.S. households had one of Keurig’s single-serve coffee makers.

“In their current form, they’re an environmental disaster,” said Kevin Knox, a coffee-industry veteran and analyst who publishes and blogs on coffee and the global coffee trade.

More than a dozen coffee manufacturers and other businesses are suing over what they claim is Keurig’s unfair efforts to shut out rival pods.

Keurig says the fight boils down to how to make the best cup of coffee, and the company has pledged to come up with a fully recyclable pod of its own by 2020. The throw-away containers, both by Keurig and its competitors, allow coffee drinkers to get a quick cup without messy grounds.

One reason Keurig is locked into plastic right now is that nothing else seems to keep the coffee inside the pods fresh like it does, said Monique Oxender, the company’s chief sustainability officer. Keurig is seeking more environmentally friendly materials, she said.

The company introduced its Keurig 2.0 last Christmas. Consumers complained about having to use only Keurig-affiliated brands, and environmentalists fumed about the steady stream of plastic pods to U.S. landfills.

And analysts say holiday sales were disappointing.

Coffee industry experts say Keurig also has stuck with plastic so far because it helps contain the carbon dioxide that roasted beans put off — early K-Cup prototypes had a problem with pods popping open.

Makers of biodegradable and recyclable single-serve pods can deal with both problems by finely timing distribution to retailers, so the pods don’t sit around too long on store shelves, said Knox, the coffee blogger.

Ultimately, Knox said, the boom of coffee-pod sales shows how intimidated Americans have become by the long-running gourmet coffee trend — fearing to home-brew java, and feeling coffee-brewing is an art best left to Keurig, Starbucks and other professionals.

If it’s really environmentally friendly coffee you want, Knox said, the argument runs the other way entirely. Instant coffee, he noted, ships easily as a lightweight powder, with minimal packaging, and a recyclable glass jar.

“One good size jar of instant coffee makes hundreds of cups.”

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