The state that many people are in as they stagger to the kitchen in search of a cup of coffee is not, typically, wholly conscious. Either at home or at work, bleary eyes — from sleep or too much time in front of a screen — leave one thinking mostly of caffeine and much less of its environmental impact.
Thanks to some alarming statistics and a viral YouTube video, this is starting to change, leaving some single-serve coffee companies under intense heat. Enter Keurig Green Mountain, the company behind the ubiquitous K-Cup.
According to the National Coffee Association, some 27 percent of American households owned a single-cup coffee brewing machine in 2015. The Keurig-made machine, whose name means "excellent" in Dutch, is the industry frontrunner. While their K-Cup certainly makes having a cup of coffee quick and easy, the less than excellent part is that the little capsule that makes it all possible isn't recyclable.
Last year, "Kill the K-Cup," a video made by Egg Studio productions and released on YouTube, quickly went viral. The short film begins with foreboding music and alarming text.
"In 2014, the use of the K-Cup reached unparalleled levels," the text reads. "Output became so high that there were enough discarded K-Cups to circle the earth 10.5 times."
Though the video warns of an coming invasion, recent sales suggest otherwise — last year, Keurig Green Mountain reported a four percent decline in net sales.
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John Sylvan, a founder of the company, sold in 1997 his share in Keurig for $50,000. Today he expresses remorse for his invention — and is increasingly tired of the whole story.
"Although I have been berated for it and the waste issues are quite public, nobody really seems to care," he wrote in an email. "So maybe the story is redemption. I am rolling the die to fix it. I want a business that is 'virtuous.'"
Sylvan's latest business venture is Zonbak, a company selling solar panels. The company's website makes it exceedingly clear that this is a project of atonement.
"Even though Keurig is sold by Green Mountain Coffee, its not 'green.' Far from it," the site reads.
A Keurig brewer generates 10 times the solid waste that would be generated from a standard drip brewer and most of that waste isn't recyclable.
"To atone for this, we have developed a product that can be considered the ultimate in green," the site reads. "By weight, Zonbak panels are 95 percent recyclable. In addition, over time we plan to have 95 percent of our raw material inputs from 100 percent recycled material."
And, while Sylvan is increasingly open about his yearning to right past wrongs, so too is Keurig Green Mountain.
According to the company's chief sustainability officer, Monique Oxender, environmental impact has become a top priority.
"Ever since the original K-Cup we have launched recyclable products," she said. "We learned our lesson."
But learning lessons is one thing, fixing problems is another.
The big challenge remains that the original K-Cup isn't recyclable, and this accounts for the vast majority of what the company produces. New recyclable options are not "backwards compatible," which means they don't work with some machines already in people's homes and offices. Though the company tried a paper-based K-Cup in 2010, the product didn't meet quality standards and was eventually taken off the market.
Keurig Green Mountain, like its original founder, is trying to move on.
"John's contributions to the company were made in its infancy 18 years ago," said Suzanne DuLong, vice president of corporate communications at Keurig Green Mountain. "We are a fundamentally different company today."
To this end, the company released a new set of environmental goals in 2014, including a 2020 target of all K-Cups to be recyclable.
"That's not to say that we will wait until 2020, but that there will be transitions of the portfolio every year," Oxender said.
And, while Oxender agrees that the company has a long way to go and many problems to solve, she also defends the choice of the K-Cup when it comes to overall ecological footprint. "We're interested in a life cycle analysis," she said, meaning everything from agriculture and energy to packaging and water usage. "Self-serve coffee is often a much more resource sufficient choice."
Roland Hischier, an ecobalance expert at EMPA, The Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, headed up a 2011 investigation to find out what kind of coffee was best for the environment. All things considered, he found that the coffee itself, and not the way it was brewed, had the biggest environmental impact.
According to a statement released by EMPA, "The environmental damage caused during the growth of the coffee crop is the largest single factor affecting the eco-balance. Depending on the amount of work done on the coffee plantation and the different levels of usage of farm machinery (i.e. diesel fuel for tractors), fertilizer and pesticides, environmental data for coffee varies significantly."
And while choosing an eco-label bean might have greater overall impact than brewing method, the study did find that old-fashioned methods, when used properly — which means drinking the pot down to the last drop — fare better than the modern single-serve method. An automatic brewer and instant coffee are the "clear winners," according to EMPA, and the traditional Italian stovetop espresso maker does just as well.
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