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Second Thoughts on the K-Cup?

It's not often that inventors forsake their inventions. When they have, it's generally been a doozy. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, received the mother of all wakeup calls when a newspaper published his obituary prematurely (his brother Ludvig, not Alfred, had died) under the headline "The Merchant of Death is Dead." Alfred Nobel was so ashamed that he devoted most of his considerable fortune to establishing the prize that bears his name. Robert Propst, dismayed by offices built for equipment and not for people, invented the open plan office and the cubicle, which he would later term "barren, rat-hole places." And Doctor J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the lead scientists on the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, later remarked of the July, 1945 Trinity test in Almogordo, New Mexico:
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

Compared against dynamite and the atomic bomb, K-Cups -- the ubiquitous, non-biodegradeable, single-use coffee pods invented by John Sylvan in 1997 -- aren't an existential threat. Sylvan's having second thoughts nonetheless, and says that if he had to do it over, he likely wouldn't have bothered. As he recently told The Atlantic's James Hamblin, “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it.”

The biggest reason for Sylvan's regret is the K Cups' environmental impact. To the extent that most people think about them at all, K-Cups are a minor annoyance, whether for their cost or for Keurig's recent move to introduce Digital Rights Management to its most recent iteration of its best-selling single-serve coffee brewer. In recent years, that's been changing, especially since the number of K-Cups currently used per year is enough to circle the earth more than ten times. That's quite a bit of plastic and metal, and an awful lot of waste.

Five things go into your K-Cup. There's a plastic cup, a paper filter, an airtight tinfoil lid, about eleven grams of coffee, and a bit of nitrogen to extend the coffee's shelf life. In theory, each of those things is recyclable. But as with so much else, there are a few catches: a used K-Cup can't be recycled whole, for instance. You'd need to remove the lid, compost the grinds, throw the small tinfoil lid in with your metal recyclables and the remains of the filter in with your paper recyclables, and then put the plastic in with your plastic recyclables (whereupon, according to Mother Jones, it's likely to just go into the trash, since the Number 7 plastic used for K-Cups can only be recycled in a small handful of places).

Ergo, one could be forgiven for wondering whether someone who's buying something specifically for single-use and convenience is really going to take the time to break a tiny cup into its component parts for recycling.

Keurig hasn't helped its own case much. The new Keurig 2.0, which we reviewed not long ago, made it very difficult to use the popular and environmentally-friendly My K-Cup with the new machines. And that's being charitable; it was, in fact, intended to make the use of a reusable filter impossible, though with a bit of creativity, there's a workaround for that.

The issue of disposing of single-use coffee pods isn't unique to Keurig, of course. However, while the company is the clear market leader in sales, they lag behind their competition in terms of recycling initiatives for the waste generated by their products. TerraCycle, a New Jersey-based company, handles recycling for Mars' Flavia pods and Kraft's Tassimo single-serve system. Sara Lee's Senseo uses biodegradable paper filters. And Nestlé’s popular Nespresso system uses aluminum capsules that are recyclable.

Which brings us to a thought in closing: don't ditch the Keurig. But if you're concerned about the environmental effects of your coffee habit, it helps to take a mindful approach to how you make your coffee. Ask your municipality about recycling K-Cups. You can also find a My K-Cup, which will still work fine in the older Keurig machines (and will work in the 2.0 with a little work; see below). It lasts hundreds of uses, and it allows you to use your favorite coffee (like our Madison Ave Medium Roast whole bean coffee), too.

Sources/Further Reading:

The original video that sparked Sylvan's misgivings (some strong language): Using any K-Cup, including reusables, in your Keurig 2.0: