K-Cup inventor expresses regret

Keurig coffee maker and pods
CC BY 2.0 Mike Mozart

The single-use coffee pods are an environmental disaster, with enough discarded ones to circle the earth 12 times in 2014. Talk about a weight on one's conscience.

John Sylvan is the inventor of the K-cup. Back in 1992, the young Bostonian who didn’t even like coffee was drinking 30 to 40 cups a day in order to create “a better, more customizable, and liberating caffeine experience than the tepid office percolator” (The Atlantic). His hard work paid off, and the K-Cup, a single-use plastic pod containing ground coffee, has rocketed to unforeseen popularity. One out of every 3 American households now has a pod-based coffee maker.

Sylvan sold Keurig to Green Mountain in 1997, which means that he only got $50,000 for a company whose revenue topped $4.7 billion last year. While he wishes he’d hung on longer, an exclusive interview with The Atlantic reveals that he’s most bothered by the environmental implications of what he created:

“I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it.”

It’s quite the legacy to carry on one’s conscience. Mother Jones made a notorious estimate in 2013, saying that there were enough discarded K-Cups to circle the earth 10.5 times. That number was closer to 12 times in 2014.

Keurig claims it’s trying to improve. While the company has promised to make its blockbuster basic model K-Cups fully recyclable by 2020 (only five more years of this waste!), every K-Cup spin-off product released since 2006 is recyclable – but only if you’re willing to separate the coffee grounds and paper, plastic, and metal components at the time of disposal, and your city offers recycling services for plastic #7.

Let’s be honest, though: “A Venn diagram would likely have little overlap between people who pay for the ultra-convenience of K-Cups and people who care enough to painstakingly disassemble said cups after use.”

Sylvan does not even own a Keurig machine. “I don’t have one. They’re kind of expensive to use. Plus it’s not like drip coffee is hard to make,” he told The Atlantic. It’s true that once you have a coffee pod machine, it owns you. Although the machines are relatively cheap to buy up front (around $63), the coffee pods work out to cost around $40 per pound – an astronomical price to pay for coffee.

Despite the cost and the excessive amount of unrecycled plastic getting shuffled off to landfills, a shocking number of people keep buying and tossing. Sylvan say he understands the appeal of coffee pods and why people cling to their destructive habit: “It’s like a cigarette for coffee, a single-serve delivery mechanism for an addictive substance.”

Consumer backlash is growing. This past winter, TreeHugger reported on the K-Cup Godzilla mock-horror clip released by a Halifax film studio, and its accompanying hashtag #KilltheKCup is popular on Twitter. There’s also a petition at KilltheKCup.org urging Keurig to improve its product.

The best form of protest, however, remains good old-fashioned consumer choice. Don’t buy a pod-based coffee maker and figure out a better zero-waste strategy for getting your daily caffeine fix. Check out Melissa’s story on “9 low-tech ways to brew great coffee with minimal waste" if you need ideas. Also, be sure to drink all the coffee you make, since many households toss an estimated 12 to 15 percent of the coffee they brew, which adds up to a lot of wasted water.

Tags: Coffee | Drinks | Kitchens | Recycling | Waste

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