It’s got to be one of the most convenient products ever—especially for consumers who want their coffee (or tea or other hot beverage) efficiently delivered without much hassle. The Keurig K-Cups® were invented in 1992 by John Sylvan. Like any innovator, Sylvan was looking for a better way. For him, it was finding a better way to provide his 30–40 daily cups of coffee in a way that was customizable and easy. The single-serve brewing pod he created became the Keurig K-Cup. Interesting note: Keurig translates to “neat” in Dutch, and the Keurig machine and its ubiquitous K-Cup arequite neat. The single-brew machine is a very efficient and convenient alternative to the traditional coffee pot or to stopping and picking up drive-through coffee every morning. However, what Sylvan didn’t anticipate was (1) the overwhelming popularity of the approach and (2) the amount of waste the single-serve pods would create because of that popularity.
Today, almost one in three homes has a pod-based coffee machine. And the sales of those pods accounted for a vast majority of the revenues of the company that makes them—Keurig Green Mountain. The company’s mission is “A Keurig brewer on every counter and a beverage for every occasion.” And the company is taking another step toward that goal of a beverage for every occasion through its partnership with Coca-Cola Company. It will begin selling, at the end of 2015, a machine called “Keurig Cold,” which will be used to dispense Coke’s various brands. The Dr Pepper Snapple group also recently signed on to allow its flavor options for the new machine. Although the Keurig machine is popular and a convenience, it also has a more troubling characteristic: the constant need to buy more K-Cups. They’re designed as single-serve, and with 9.8 billion of them sold in 2014, that’s a lot of K-Cups hitting landfills, because they are not recyclable. Those 9.8 billion K-Cups would circle the globe more than 12 times.
Environmentalists have criticized the company for its slow response to creating and selling a recyclable version of the pod. And it’s not that it can’t be done. For instance, when the K-Cup design patent expired in 2012, other companies brought out single-serve cups that are completely biodegradable and recyclable. To further highlight the sustainability issue, an anonymous YouTube video called “Kill the K-Cup” hit the Internet in early 2015. The apocalyptic nature of the video highlighted the extreme waste and irresponsibility of continuing to make coffee in a way “that simply cannot be sustained.” It was eventually revealed that the creator of the video was a production company in Halifax, Nova Scotia, whose employees loved their Keurig until they began to notice the growing pile of discarded K-Cups that, despite great Canadian recycling programs, could not easily be recycled.
So what does the company say? Keurig’s chief sustainability officer, Monique Oxender, says that the company isn’t happy with its track record either. In 2014, the company pledged to create a fully recyclable version of the K-Cup by 2020. Of course, the critics have jumped all over the 2020 goal saying that five years is a long time to continue to fill up landfills and pointing out that the plastic used in the K-Cups will never be able to be fully recyclable because of the type of plastic it is. In its annual sustainability report, Keurig Green Mountain describes its efforts to strengthen its global citizenship and sustainability leadership.71 (Links to an external site.) Others have said that despite the outcry against the K-Cups, there are some sustainability benefits to the Keurig machine and its single-serve pods. For instance, they’re likely to save electricity over a coffee pot that’s constantly “on” to keep the coffee warm. Also, the pods have been shown to be a more efficient way of extracting coffee from grounds, thus saving resources. And other approaches to coffee making likely use more water in brewing coffee that may not actually be consumed and then dumped down the drain. So, although “environmental awareness is never a bad thing,” are the critics overreacting to the situation?
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