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Keurig fined $3M over misleading coffee pod recycling claims

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Canada’s Competition Bureau says Keurig Canada’s persistence in claiming unrealistic levels of recyclability for its popular single-use K-Cup coffee pods has led to a $3-million fine and the need to change the product’s packaging.

While Keurig suggested that just a few simple steps were necessary to prep the coffee pod for the recycling bin, the reality across municipal recycling systems was rarely compatible, and the pods were often deemed problematic by the recycling industry.

In fact, most major centres in Canada, such as Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Winnipeg, and Saskatoon, advised residents to trash the pods, not recycle them.

“Portraying products or services as having more environmental benefits than they truly have is an illegal practice in Canada,” announced Competition Bureau Canada Commissioner Matthew Boswell. “False or misleading claims by businesses to promote ’greener’ products harm consumers who are unable to make informed purchasing decisions, as well as competition and businesses who actually offer products with a lower environmental impact,” he added.

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The Keurig fine comes despite the Competition Bureau’s 2017 warning to businesses against making misleading environmental claims. Keurig’s advertising may have worked to attract environmentally-conscious consumers, despite their complex recycling process.

The coffee pods were able to be recycled in Quebec and British Columbia, but the metal top had to be removed and the plastic pods washed out. In B.C.’s Capital Regional District, single-use coffee pods are theoretically recyclable, however, regional officials actually advised residents to make their coffee “in a good old fashioned coffee maker instead.”

A 2018 report from Toronto’s Solid Waste Management Service cited contamination issues and consumer confusion about the pods as a problem that increased the cost of waste management.

It may have ultimately been Keurig’s persistent marketing that led to the fine. Its advertising often suggested that the pods were easy to recycle, which according to the Competition Bureau amounted to “greenwashing”, the business practice of making a product seem greener than it actually may be.

The Competition Bureau’s process is primarily complaint-based, and in this instance, the complaint came from a 2019 submission by Ecojustice and the University of Victoria Environmental Law Clinic. In addition to the Keurig inquiry, Ecojustice has also prompted the Competition Bureau to open two other inquiries into greenwashing claims: one about “flushable” wipes and the other relating to the Sustainable Forest Management Standard.

The Keurig fine also comes on the heels of Canada’s third phase of a milestone ban on single-use plastics.

Keurig voluntarily made an $800,000 donation to an environmental charity and paid $85,000 in expenses for the bureau’s case.

The company must also publish corrective notices about the limited recyclability of its product on its websites, social media, and news sites. The corrections will also appear on the packaging of all new brewing machines and via email to Keurig subscribers.

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