What if you didn't have to toss those used and dripping coffee pods? Or try to recycle them? Or avoid buying them altogether?
That's the idea behind compostable coffee pods, developed in 2015 for Keurig and similar machines from plant-based materials and certified to break down in industrial composting facilities.
If it really works — and a Kansas City woman is challenging that notion in two lawsuits — single-serve coffee could become friendlier for the environment, and a new class of consumers could warm up to those machines they've previously found repulsive.
"I refuse to buy a Keurig," said Lisa McDaniel, manager of the solid waste program at the Mid-America Regional Council. "I don't want to deal with the waste. You can't recycle those pods."
McDaniel explains that plastic K-Cups and their kind are too small to be recycled in the Kansas City area. Materials picked up for recycling here end up at sorting centers. And the plastic parts of traditional single-serve coffee pods fall through the sorting equipment and end up in landfills.
Composting single-serve coffee is about more than the problematic plastic.
It's also about the wet coffee grounds, which are a valuable addition to any composting operation. Getting the grounds back into the ground is a lot easier if everything from a single-serve cup can go straight into the composting pile.
Compostable coffee pods are showing up in more brands.
Three makers of the pods have gained certification from the Biodegradable Products Institute. Club Coffee's PurPod100 was the first and is sold under several brands. Rogers Family Co.'s pods are used by San Francisco Organic Coffee Co. and others. Certified pods from Canturbury Coffee Corp. are used in its OneCoffee brand.
Compostable coffee pods also have shown up in courtrooms.
Tonya Kelly of Kansas City has sued Cameron's Coffee and Kauai Coffee separately on the grounds that they make "false, deceptive and misleading" claims that they are selling "100% COMPOSTABLE PODS."
The pods are "only compostable in commercial composting facilities that are not generally available in Missouri," said her separate petitions against Cameron's and Kauai in Jackson County Circuit Court.
Consumers have access to only one industrial composting facility in Missouri, and it's in Clayton, near St. Louis. That's according not only to the lawsuits but also to the industrial composting facility finder at CoffeeComposting.com, which is a website run by Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA, which owns Kauai Coffee.
Neither the lawsuits nor CoffeeComposting identified an industrial composting facility in Kansas available to consumers.
The composting argument echoes one found in the recycling world that goes like this: It is not enough to make a bottle, can or box out of material that can be recycled. The consumer of that packaging must have access to facilities that recycle the material or no benefit is gained.
In her lawsuits, Kelly complains that she doesn't have access to an industrial composting facility, and the coffee boxes say the pods are "Not certified for backyard composting." The lawsuits seek class-action status to represent other consumers who bought the products.
Kelly and her attorney, Christopher Shank, have succeeded with this kind of lawsuit before. In 2013, they sued PopChips. and a settlement awarded consumers $1 per bag purchased, up to 10 bags per household.
Neither Cameron's Coffee nor Kauai Coffee would comment about the lawsuits or for this article.
Cameron's Coffee says its pods are certified to break down in an industrial facility, but doesn't say who did the certification. It makes other composting claims on its website.
"Home composting may take a bit longer than an industrial or municipal facility," its website said. "But in our experience here at Cameron's Coffee, we have successfully composted our pods in home composting containers."
There are genuine differences between composting at home and at an industrial scale, said Christina Eglich, sales manager at Missouri Organic Recycling. It operates an industrial compost site in the Kansas City area that works with large and small businesses, schools, grocery stores and other establishments. It is not open directly to consumers.
Composting material at Missouri Organic generally reaches temperatures between 155 and 165 degrees during most of its processing time. Missouri Organic knows because it closely monitors temperatures to ensure the compost harvested at the end is free of pathogens from meat, dairy, butcher paper and other materials that go into the piles.
Achieving those temperatures requires the right mix of materials, water and agitation. The certification that PurPod100 received from the Biodegradable Products Institute is that it will break down properly when those conditions are met.
It is a guess as to the combination of temperature, moisture and time that anyone's backyard compost pile reaches.
"There's no certification on home composting in North America," said Solange Ackrill, marketing vice president at Club Coffee, which developed PurPod100.
The home composting question is important because coffee drinkers won't help the environment by tossing compostable pods in the trash to end up in a landfill. Conditions in a landfill are largely static and dry. Materials are covered by dirt rather than exposed to sunlight and air.
McDaniel said even a banana peel can fail to break down under those conditions. Putting compostable materials in landfills also defeats the purpose of using compostable materials. Composting turns them into a rich organic ingredient to improve gardens and yards.
The Mid-America Regional Council offers home composting instructions, including a list of what can go in the pile or bin, at its RecycleSpot.org website.
The Environmental Protection Agency also offers information on how to compost at home.
Keurig and others have offered alternatives to throwing the little plastic cups directly in the trash.
Machine maker Keurig Green Mountain Inc. runs a K-Cup recycling program called Grounds to Grow On that sells bins for workplaces. Fill one with used K-Cups and then ship it off via UPS to be recycled.
TerraCycle sells a "Coffee Capsules - Zero Waste Box." Fill the small box with up to 200 coffee pods then ship it by FedEx, which is included in the $85 cost. Quick math shows that's 42.5 cents a cup, nearly as much as the pod to make the cup of coffee.
McDaniel said such programs deliver the plastic cups directly to recycling processors, skipping the sorting centers that handle consumer recycling materials in many markets.
Conscientious single-serve consumers also can buy devices to separate the hard cups from their tops and coffee-filled filters so the parts can be recycled. But the pieces are too small for the recycling centers.
Some Kansas City area residents have access to composting beyond their back yards.
Compost Collective KC provides a weekly pickup of food waste in a few Kansas City neighborhoods.
Meredith and Kyle McAllister started the business last summer. They offer small and large compost buckets and environmentally friendly liners for Friday pickup in the Brookside, Waldo and Midtown neighborhoods. The cost is $20 or $25 a month, depending on the size of bucket.
The liners end up at Missouri Organic's industrial compost facility, but so far no one has noticed compostable pods in the mix.
Residents of Kansas City's Pendleton Heights neighborhood have access to a weekly curbside food composting program run by Kansas City Jerusalem Farm.
Urbavore Urban Farm accepts food waste at its compost operation at 5500 Bennington Ave. in Kansas City. Dan Heryer said it reaches higher temperatures than a typical home compost pile but isn't an industrial facility. Heryer and his wife, Brooke Salvaggio, previously ran the Bad Seed market in Kansas City.