In 2012, Green Mountain sold about 5 billion K-cups. That means several billion single-use foil, paper, and plastic capsules went straight into landfills...and our oceans. Plastic pollution is a major environmental issue: 90% of marine debris is from disposable plastics. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was the subject of a 2010 Tedx talk.
Plastic coffee pods aren't biodegradable. The multi-material structure fuses several components, which is "incredibly difficult or impossible" for recycling plants to process. But that's only one piece of the problem. Coffee pods are too small to be captured by most facilities that sort by size and density. And depending on the type of plastic used, many communities many not even accept coffee pods for recycling. Coffee pod manufacturers are aware of the issue, and have made some attempts at greenwashing. Unfortunately, the solutions sound about as effective as plugging a leak in the Hoover Dam with a band-aid. Reusable pods are available, but that involves fussing with grounds and clean-up, the very activities single-use pods were designed to avoid in the first place.
Recycling company TerraCycle has partnered with Tassimo, Mars Drinks, Nespresso, and Illy to develop customized take-back programs, diverting pods away from landfills. (Keurig runs its own recovery program, but it'll cost you: $50 for 5 small bins, $100 for 5 large.) Albe Zakes, TerraCycle's global VP, estimates TerraCycle has collected roughly 25 million coffee capsules since 2009. Pod sales are measured by the billion.
Programs of this nature also expend energy at multiple points. Customers drive to a designated site to drop off their used pods. The pods are shipped to a processing center, and downcycled (not recycled) into low-grade uses like "pavers and composite lumber."
Packaging is the most visible form of waste, but an analysis run by Keurig found that the pods themselves represent only a small portion of the total environmental impact. Even more waste is associated with the production of these tiny, convenient, and totally unnecessary plastic cups.