Here’s How Much You’d Save by Dumping K-Cups for Traditional Brewed Coffee


The inventor of K-Cups says he regrets coming up with the idea and doesn't even own a K-Cup machine.

This week, the Atlantic ran a story in which John Sylvan, inventor of the K-Cup—the single-serve coffee pods that are increasingly taking over home and office counter space—dropped a bombshell. “I don’t have one. They’re kind of expensive to use,” Sylvan said of the K-Cup system he created. “Plus it’s not like drip coffee is tough to make.”

This isn’t exactly like Henry Ford saying that he prefers bicycles to cars, or Steve Jobs praising the cost-effectiveness of a rotary phone over an iPhone, but it’s sorta in the same ballpark.

Sylvan acknowledged that he feels “bad sometimes” about creating the K-Cup, which he likened to “a cigarette for coffee, a single-serve delivery mechanism for an addictive substance.” Also, the proliferation of coffee pods—which are mostly unrecyclable, and which take up more and more space in landfills thanks to America’s ever-growing love affair with coffee—have raised serious environmental concerns as they’ve increased in popularity. Quartz declared them “the most wasteful form of coffee” on the planet.

For now, though, let’s focus strictly on the household economics of single-pod coffee brewers. To what degree are they “kind of expensive” compared with regular coffee makers?

First, there’s the cost of the machine. Recently, marketing professor Eric Anderson at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management noted that in 2002, the average coffee maker cost $35. Today it’s still easy to find a basic coffee maker for that price, or even $20 or $25. By 2013, however, the average coffee maker purchase price hit around $90, partly due to the spread of pricey single-pod brewers from Keurig (the K in K-Cups), Nespresso, and others. At Bed Bath and Beyond, the least expensive Keurig coffee maker is $100, which seems fairly typical.

But that’s only a small factor in how much more K-Cups cost compared with brewing traditional drip coffee. The Atlantic story estimates that the tiny amount of coffee used in each K-Cup winds up costing the equivalent of $40 per pound. That’s easily three times the price of a pound of ground or whole bean Starbucks coffee.

How much more money, then, does a household spend by using K-Cups? The answer depends on several factors, including how much coffee you drink and what kind, and how carefully you shop for deals on coffee makers and the coffee itself. Over the years, various penny-pinching individuals have done the math on the subject, and the breakdown usually shows that K-Cups cost two or three times more per cup compared with traditionally brewed coffee.

One fairly typical analysis, comparing Caribou brand K-Cups versus ground coffee, showed that the per-cup cost was 66¢ versus 28¢, respectively. If you make three cups a day, 365 days a year, that adds up to around $723 spent on K-Cups, versus $307 for regular coffee brewers. So you’d easily save $400 a year by going the old-fashioned route—which, again, Sylvan points out accurately, ain’t exactly hard to handle.

For an idea of how much your household specifically would save—or, on the flip side, how much you’re paying for the convenience of K-Cups—check out the coffee maker calculator one economist created a couple years back. Enter a few data points into the Excel calculator, including how many cups of coffee you brew per week, the cost of coffee machines you’re considering, how much you typically spend on coffee, and even how much of the coffee pot you usually wind up pouring down the drain, and it’ll spit out the per-cup price breakdowns. We entered several different scenarios, and K-Cups were at least twice as expensive in all cases.

If the majority of your coffee does come brewed via K-Cup, at least you can take solace in the fact that you’re not hitting Starbucks or another coffee shop several times a day. Compared to that, your K-Cup habit will seem downright cheap.


The abominable k-cup coffee pod environment problem

A Brewing Problem
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“I don't have one. They're kind of expensive to use,” John Sylvan told me frankly, of Keurig K-Cups, the single-serve brewing pods that have fundamentally changed the coffee experience in recent years. “Plus it’s not like drip coffee is tough to make.” Which would seem like a pretty banal sentiment, were Sylvan not the inventor of the K-Cup.

Almost one in three American homes now has a pod-based coffee machine, even though Sylvan never imagined they would be used outside of offices. Last year K-Cups accounted for most of Keurig Green Mountain’s $4.7 billion in revenue—more than five times what the company made five years prior. So even though he gets treated like a minor celebrity when he tells people he founded Keurig, Sylvan has some regrets about selling his share of the company in 1997 for $50,000. But that’s not what really upsets him.

In 2010, journalist and caffeine aficionado Murray Carpenter visited the Keurig facilities in Waterbury, Vermont, reporting for The New York Times that the K-Cup idea posed environmental concerns, as the pods were not recyclable or biodegradable. It was that same year that the Keurig model seemed to take off, doubling in sales. In a 2011 local-boys-make-it-big story in Boston magazine, Eric Anderson, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University, likewise noted that the coffee machines could invite significant backlash because they “generate a ton of plastic waste.”

At the time of Carpenter's visit, Keurig was on pace to sell three million K-Cups. So to say that growth has been good since then is understatement; last year they topped 9 billion. But today the cups are still not recyclable or biodegradable. And they only stand to become rapidly more ubiquitous. Later this year, in partnership with Coca-Cola, the company will release a machine called “Keurig Cold” that will “introduce Coca-Cola’s global brand portfolio” to the machines, growing rapidly closer to the corporate mission: “A Keurig brewer on every counter and a beverage for every occasion.”

Though the predicted consumer backlash has arrived, especially in recent months, the company continues to grow. Others have entered the market very successfully. While drip coffee-maker sales are stagnant, pod-machine sales have increased six-fold since 2008. Looking back on his invention, amid increasing public condemnation of K-Cups as a scourge on the planet, Sylvan told me, “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it.”

* * *

As a twenty-something Bostonian in 1992, John Sylvan didn’t have a particular passion for coffee. But he was drinking 30 to 40 cups a day. He had to drink that much because, intent on starting his own business, Sylvan had left his menial office job and become his own test subject for coffee—which was at times barely palatable—that he could produce via a homemade pod device.

Sylvan was certain there was a market for a better, more customizable, more liberating caffeine experience than the tepid office percolator, run by vendors with a corner on the market for delivering terrible coffee en masse. Once he had a design that worked, he looked up the word excellence in Dutch—because “everyone likes the Dutch”—and he and his college roommate Peter Dragone named their new company Keurig.

Sylvan knew the pods would sell. As he explains the appeal now, “It's like a cigarette for coffee, a single-serve delivery mechanism for an addictive substance.” But he had no idea at the time how ubiquitous the product would become. And like printer cartridges or razor blades, the Keurig business model was predicated on another type of dependence.

The machines are not too expensive as appliances go. You can get one for $63; a bargain for a taste of the good stuff. But once you have one, it has you, too. The cups contain a mere 11 grams of ground coffee, vacuum-sealed in nitrogen to prevent oxidation. K-Cups are extremely profitable, selling standard coffee grounds for around $40 per pound. But what are you going to do, not buy the refills for your machine?

And when the pertinent K-Cup design patents expired in 2012, and the market was suddenly flooded with off-brand competitors, the company created a second-generation (2.0) machine that would only function with Keurig-brand cups. It’s digital rights management, the coffee equivalent of Steve Jobs’ attempt to fill iPods only with music sold through iTunes. That might seem like a reasonable, defensible move to protect intellectual property and keep a corner on the market—except that some of the competitors’ cups are nearly completely biodegradable or reusable. Which does little to deflect the growing criticism that Keurig Green Mountain is not seriously prioritizing sustainability.

“Watch this. Oh my.” Sylvan sent me a link to a YouTube video entitled “Kill the K-Cup.” It was an apocalyptic two-and-a-half minutes of K-Cups raining down on humanity like hellfire. Flying monsters and aircrafts made entirely of K-Cups shoot K-Cups down onto people cowering in the streets, which are filled with empty K-Cups. The video was highly produced, with Hollywood-level, Cloverfield-esque special effects and disdain for subtlety: K-Cups are quite literally destroying the planet. The implicit scale of the tragedy is enormous, even if we only see two people actually crushed by K-Cups.

The doomsday sequences are interspersed with statistics that drive the point home: In 2014, enough K-Cups were sold that if placed end-to-end, they would circle the globe 10.5 times. Almost all of them ended up in landfills. They are not recyclable. Using them is extremely wasteful and irresponsible; they are a stupid way to make coffee that simply cannot be sustained. Stop using them, stop using them, stop using them; “Kill the K-Cup, before it kills our planet.”

Read the rest at The Atlantic 

Is the plastic used in Keurig K-Cups safe?

As always more comments on the "wonderful" K-cup over at coffee detective

Mar 04, 2015yuck
by: dee 

Nasty stuff! Don't use it!

Mar 02, 2015plastic
by: Anonymous 

Are you serious? Have you read the ingriedients in the junk? You will be hard pressed to even find any coffee in that mess. I can't believe people drink that crap.

Feb 20, 2015Hives
by: Amy 

I have been getting hives all over my legs and arms for the past few weeks. The only thing tahat I have introduced in my daily routine has been k-cups Earl Grey and Jasmine tea. The hives go away by morning, but come back full blast around 11am. I did not have my tea this morning and so far so good. I will know better tomorrow. I also am allergic to Advil. I wonder what is in those k-cups???

Feb 14, 2015Modern Percolator
by: Mountainman 

I use a modern percolator that is all stainless steel. Mine is made by Presto and contains no plastic that would touch the coffee at all. These are readily available. Modern percolator's do not overheat the coffee as the ones in the past did. They make great coffee, produce no environment waste, are cheap and best of all add no chemicals to the coffee.

Feb 06, 2015Stomach problems 
by: Rob 

During a period of time I was using Keurig alot a few years ago I developed severe stomach problems that made me incredibly ill for almost a year. it was horrible. I will never use keurig again.

Feb 02, 2015BPA or BPS?
by: Anonymous 

you state that k-cups have no BPA in them.....what about BPS. the industry has said to have changed BPA and made it better, now calling it BPS.....BPS is hardly better, as a matter of fact is is worse then BPS.....so i ask, do you have BPS in your plastics?

It’s true: Americans like to drink bad coffee

With upscale artisanal coffee brewers dotting city streets across the country, America might fancy itself a nation of high-end coffee drinkers.
But just the opposite is true: People in this country, on the whole, are actually drinking worse coffee today than they have in the past. And the reason appears to be that they value cheapness over quality — and convenience over everything. "A lot of people in America would take a sip of single origin high-end coffee and not appreciate the taste," said Howard Telford, an industry analyst at market research firm Euromonitor.
"Price is important because if you can’t afford it, you can’t buy it, but convenience is the one thing that’s really changing trends these days." Indeed, the bulk of this country runs not on single-drip artisanal coffee, but standard, pre-ground coffee, which, by most coffee snobs' measures, is one of coffee's most inferior forms.
Only about 8 percent of the coffee beans Americans buy are fresh whole beans, which upscale coffee brewers, like Blue Bottle, will tell you is the much better way to buy coffee beans. And ground coffee isn't just outpacing whole bean coffee — it's increasing its lead, each and every year.
The rise of coffee pods, which come pre-ground, provides what is without question the most compelling evidence of the country's desire for convenience. Sales of coffee pods have grown by a blistering 138,324 percent — yes, 138,324 percent — over the past 10 years, according to data from Euromonitor. They have have jumped more than tenfold since 2009 alone. And they're still rising at an annual clip of more than 30 percent.
And pod coffee machines, to further vindicate the trend, have been outselling drip coffee machines since 2013. America's fast-growing obsession with single-serve pods is such that it has made Keurig Green Mountain, the maker of K-Cups, the best-selling brand of coffee in the United States.

The Microwave Trick To Fancy Foamed Latte Milk

Cappuccinos are expensive. Macchiatos are too. But you know what's not pricey? Making those fancy espresso drinks at home. If you're thinking to yourself, "But I can't make those drinks, I don't have the proper tools, wah," we're here to tell you that yes, you can.

You do not need a thousand-dollar piece of equipment to enjoy a little foamed milk with your caffeine fix. What you will need is a microwave (if you don't have one of those you can just stop reading right now), milk and a container. With those three items, a bit of shaking and the pressing of a couple of buttons, you'll be gifted with wonderfully foamy milk for all your espresso needs.

Watch the video above to see how it's done (and enjoy the music). But first, a couple of tips. Use only skim or two percent milk. Those will foam up better in the microwave because they're fortified with added protein. Once you have your foam, pour it on top barista style -- because you're fancy now.