Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. That’s exactly what John Sylvan, inventor of the K-cup of the coffee-in-a-pod system and co-founder of Keurig, did. Or so he thought. He designed the single-serve coffee pod. It makes coffee preparation convenient and fast, with no waste. His invention proved to be a game changer in the industry. Sales have increased year after year from the time it was launched into the market.
What Sylvan, an environmentalist, did not count on, was that the coffee pods would become a massive pollutant that would be difficult to dispose of.
Just how much of a pollutant is it? Statistics suggest that if all the coffee pods sold by market leader Keurig were laid end to end, they would circle the Earth twelve times over! What makes it worse is that the pods are made of plastic and aluminium, a combination that is generally not recyclable. Recycling plants currently don’t have the capability to recycle such a combination of materials.
The single-use coffee pod-machine revolutionized the coffee maker market. It gained so much popularity because of the rising trend in single-dweller homes in Europe and some parts of the US, where people prefer to make the exact number of their preferred cups of Joe before they take off for work. In fact pod machines already outsold drip coffeemakers in Western Europe in 2013. There is little if any coffee wasted with single-serve coffee systems, especially compared to slow drip machines. What the system’s designer did not foresee is its negative impact to the environment; with countless millions of those pods going into landfill every day.
Since there is no available solution to the problem at the moment, the city of Hamburg in Germany, took the first public stand against this rising problem. They banned the use of single-use coffee pods from all government-run buildings in the city. They decided that tax payers should not be paying to get rid of those tiny pods. This initiative is part of a larger drive towards making the city more sustainable and environment friendly, especially with the phenomenal popularity of pod machines.
About 13% of the German population drink coffee made from pod machines.In the USA, the percentage of households using a pod machine jumped from 15% to 25% between 2014 and 2015. In a poll conducted in 2013, 1 in 3 Americans have access to a single-serve coffee machine either at home or at work. The numbers may be good for coffee pod machine producers, but it is a growing dilemma for our environment.
What is more alarming is that people are still buying and using pod-machines despite knowing how damaging they are to the environment. A case in point is a survey conducted among British respondents, where 1 in 10 people ‘believe that coffee pods are very bad for the environment’ and yet, a good 22% of them admitted that they owned a pod-machine! They’re everywhere and it looks like the system’s popularity is not going to wane anytime soon.
Sylvan’s exhilaration at inventing something the world would love turned into dismay when it became more of a curse than a blessing to the environment. He has sold his rights over it to Keurig awhile back and while he cannot undo things now, he does not promote its use and walks the talk by not owning a machine himself.
In all fairness to coffee pod machine producers, market leader Keurig has committed to creating a fully recyclable version of the single-use-K-cup by 2020. Still, environmentalists point out that the the four-year wait would mean an accumulation of non-recyclable coffee pods that are not disposable waste at all.
The city of Hamburg’s move to ban the machines in government buildings may not make much of a difference on a larger scale, but it is nonetheless a bold statement that other governments and cities can emulate. A collective effort from other governments, starting from that one small step, can make a significant dent in landfill usage around the world.
If nothing is done to solve this problem now, then indeed we just might have paved the road to hell, not with good intentions, but with coffee pods.
Do you have a pod machine? Were you aware of this problem? Share your thoughts via the comments box below.