One of the greatest mysteries of office water cooler chats nationwide has finally been solved — is that giant box of single-use coffee pods really recyclable? Turns out, in most cases, the answer is no. 

In a major win for consumers and the environment, Keurig Canada has been ordered to pay a $3 million penalty for misleading consumers about the recyclability of its single-use plastic K-Cup pods. 

This victory comes following a 2019 submission by Ecojustice and the University of Victoria Environmental Law Clinic to the Competition Bureau which highlighted several instances of false and misleading marketing of K-cups as a ‘green’ and easily recyclable product for Canadian consumers.  

In addition to the $3 million fine, Keurig will make a $800,000 donation to an environmental charity and pay $85,000 in Competition Bureau expenses for the case. The company was also ordered to update its packaging and notify consumers of the changes to its recyclability claims on its website, social channels and through media outlets. 

Keurig reportedly agreed to settle a class-action suit in the United States over the same issue last month, although the details of that settlement are not yet public. 

Case demonstrates dangers of greenwashing for consumers and environment 

The Keurig decision highlights the pervasive issue of greenwashing of consumer products in Canada. Greenwashing is a dangerous and deceptive marketing practice where companies use unsubstantiated claims to deceive consumers into believing that their products or services are environmentally-friendly. 

While greenwashing is not new, it has increased over recent years to meet consumer demand for environmentally-friendly goods and services.The central danger in greenwashing is that it can mislead well-intentioned people into acting unsustainably, purchasing toxic, dangerous and environmentally-damaging products, without being aware of the risks. 

Greenwashing terms can also lead consumers to use or dispose of the product in a way that is counter-productive. In the case of Keurig, the company claimed its single-use plastic beverage pods could be recycled if consumers peeled off the metallic lid and emptied out any contents like coffee grounds. 

But the Competition Bureau found that K-Cups are not widely accepted for recycling in any province except in parts of Quebec and British Columbia and noted the company’s instructions didn’t go far enough for many cities that might accept the pods in a recycling program. 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 in the City. 

Sustainability cannot simply be a branding exercise – it must be at the core of business strategy 

Greenwashing attempts to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims and policies are more environmentally-friendly than they actually are. As a result, companies may enjoy better sales or boost their reputations under the premise of environmentalism without actually incurring the cost or responsibility of implementing sustainable practices. 

Compounding the problem is the fact that environmental advertising is not tightly regulated and can be difficult to enforce. Buzzwords like ‘biodegradable’, ‘ecological’, ‘environmentally-friendly’, ‘natural’, ‘green’, and ‘sustainable’ have no clear definition or widely-recognized required standard to warrant those claims. 

In 2008, the Competition Bureau of Canada published guidelines for environmental claims in advertisements, requiring advertisers to avoid vague or misleading language, to include verifiable and specific information, and to provide relevant context in their claims. Those guidelines were later updated with a more limited scope. 

Five years ago, the Competition Bureau issued a warning to companies that ‘greenwashing’ their products is illegal in Canada. Despite this, greenwashing remains widespread in various industries across the country. 

How Ecojustice is combatting greenwashing 

Greenwashing is everywhere and fighting it can feel like an uphill battle. Strict regulations and enforcement are needed to ensure that companies cannot lie to consumers and damage the environment with impunity. 

In Canada, three key pieces of legislation govern advertising and liability: the Competition Act, the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act and the Textile Labelling Act. The Competition Bureau of Canada is responsible for administering and enforcing this legislation. 

Under the Competition Act, Canadians can submit an application for inquiry to the Competition Bureau, calling on the Bureau to investigate a claim of greenwashing.  

In addition to the Keurig inquiry, Ecojustice has also prompted the Competition Bureau to open two other inquiries into greenwashing claims: about so-called ‘flushable’ wipes and the Sustainable Forest Management Standard. 

In 2019, a study out of Ryerson University made an alarming finding: Wipes, cloths, diaper liners and other products marketed as ‘flushable’ in Canada are not in fact safe to flush down the toilet. When these products are improperly flushed, they contribute to blocking sewage systems and pollute lakes, rivers and oceans. In response, Ecojustice filed an application on behalf of Friends of the Earth Canada, seeking an investigation by the Competition Bureau into false and misleading claims made by the manufacturers of 23 so-called flushable wipes and other single-use products. 

The ‘Sustainable Forest Management’ standard from the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) certifies and promotes wood products from logging operations — including in BC’s old-growth forests — as sustainable, which we believe is patently false and misleading. In July 2021, we filed a request for an investigation into the matter. 

Both of these greenwashing inquiries are ongoing. We hope the Keurig case signals the Competition Bureau will take meaningful action to hold companies to account for greenwashing. 

What can you do to make smart consumer choices? 

Filing a complaint with the Competition Bureau can be a useful legal tool but will not serve you much on your next trip to the store. So how can you get to the bottom of these greenwashing marketing traps? 

The first thing to do is ask questions and look deeper into a company’s environmental claims. If you see something on a label, visit the company’s website for more information. If the information there seems broad or vague, there’s a good chance there’s some greenwashing at play. Be mindful of companies playing on the ‘lesser of two evils’ concept — though a company may claim to be ‘greener’ than its competitor, if the product itself is unsustainable, does it really make a difference? This is true for many single-use items. 

If you’re still unsure, don’t be afraid to reach out to companies directly and question their claims. Transparency is important. If a company is not upfront with its practices and products, it might be because there’s no substance to their environmental claims.  

Lastly, try and shop with intention. Do your part by researching the products you plan to purchase before going to the store. And if possible, the best way to ensure you are being sustainable is to buy fewer things and avoid single-use products. Invest in well-made, sustainable products that will last you for years to come. 

The rise of greenwashing, paired with ineffective regulation, diminishes the power of environmentally-conscious consumers to make ethical product decisions. But with a little time and effort, consumers have an incredible amount of power to exert pressure on companies to adopt greener manufacturing processes and business operations. The recent Keurig decision also sends a strong message to other businesses that greenwashing is unacceptable and that if they mislead consumers there will be consequences.