A Brewing Problem
What's the healthiest way to keep everyone caffeinated?
“I don't have one. They're kind of expensive to use,” John Sylvan told me frankly, of Keurig K-Cups, the single-serve brewing pods that have fundamentally changed the coffee experience in recent years. “Plus it’s not like drip coffee is tough to make.” Which would seem like a pretty banal sentiment, were Sylvan not the inventor of the K-Cup.
Almost one in three American homes now has a pod-based coffee machine, even though Sylvan never imagined they would be used outside of offices. Last year K-Cups accounted for most of Keurig Green Mountain’s $4.7 billion in revenue—more than five times what the company made five years prior. So even though he gets treated like a minor celebrity when he tells people he founded Keurig, Sylvan has some regrets about selling his share of the company in 1997 for $50,000. But that’s not what really upsets him.
In 2010, journalist and caffeine aficionado Murray Carpenter visited the Keurig facilities in Waterbury, Vermont, reporting for The New York Times that the K-Cup idea posed environmental concerns, as the pods were not recyclable or biodegradable. It was that same year that the Keurig model seemed to take off, doubling in sales. In a 2011 local-boys-make-it-big story in Boston magazine, Eric Anderson, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University, likewise noted that the coffee machines could invite significant backlash because they “generate a ton of plastic waste.”
At the time of Carpenter's visit, Keurig was on pace to sell three million K-Cups. So to say that growth has been good since then is understatement; last year they topped 9 billion. But today the cups are still not recyclable or biodegradable. And they only stand to become rapidly more ubiquitous. Later this year, in partnership with Coca-Cola, the company will release a machine called “Keurig Cold” that will “introduce Coca-Cola’s global brand portfolio” to the machines, growing rapidly closer to the corporate mission: “A Keurig brewer on every counter and a beverage for every occasion.”
Though the predicted consumer backlash has arrived, especially in recent months, the company continues to grow. Others have entered the market very successfully. While drip coffee-maker sales are stagnant, pod-machine sales have increased six-fold since 2008. Looking back on his invention, amid increasing public condemnation of K-Cups as a scourge on the planet, Sylvan told me, “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it.”
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As a twenty-something Bostonian in 1992, John Sylvan didn’t have a particular passion for coffee. But he was drinking 30 to 40 cups a day. He had to drink that much because, intent on starting his own business, Sylvan had left his menial office job and become his own test subject for coffee—which was at times barely palatable—that he could produce via a homemade pod device.
Sylvan was certain there was a market for a better, more customizable, more liberating caffeine experience than the tepid office percolator, run by vendors with a corner on the market for delivering terrible coffee en masse. Once he had a design that worked, he looked up the word excellence in Dutch—because “everyone likes the Dutch”—and he and his college roommate Peter Dragone named their new company Keurig.
Sylvan knew the pods would sell. As he explains the appeal now, “It's like a cigarette for coffee, a single-serve delivery mechanism for an addictive substance.” But he had no idea at the time how ubiquitous the product would become. And like printer cartridges or razor blades, the Keurig business model was predicated on another type of dependence.
The machines are not too expensive as appliances go. You can get one for $63; a bargain for a taste of the good stuff. But once you have one, it has you, too. The cups contain a mere 11 grams of ground coffee, vacuum-sealed in nitrogen to prevent oxidation. K-Cups are extremely profitable, selling standard coffee grounds for around $40 per pound. But what are you going to do, not buy the refills for your machine?
And when the pertinent K-Cup design patents expired in 2012, and the market was suddenly flooded with off-brand competitors, the company created a second-generation (2.0) machine that would only function with Keurig-brand cups. It’s digital rights management, the coffee equivalent of Steve Jobs’ attempt to fill iPods only with music sold through iTunes. That might seem like a reasonable, defensible move to protect intellectual property and keep a corner on the market—except that some of the competitors’ cups are nearly completely biodegradable or reusable. Which does little to deflect the growing criticism that Keurig Green Mountain is not seriously prioritizing sustainability.
“Watch this. Oh my.” Sylvan sent me a link to a YouTube video entitled “Kill the K-Cup.” It was an apocalyptic two-and-a-half minutes of K-Cups raining down on humanity like hellfire. Flying monsters and aircrafts made entirely of K-Cups shoot K-Cups down onto people cowering in the streets, which are filled with empty K-Cups. The video was highly produced, with Hollywood-level, Cloverfield-esque special effects and disdain for subtlety: K-Cups are quite literally destroying the planet. The implicit scale of the tragedy is enormous, even if we only see two people actually crushed by K-Cups.
The doomsday sequences are interspersed with statistics that drive the point home: In 2014, enough K-Cups were sold that if placed end-to-end, they would circle the globe 10.5 times. Almost all of them ended up in landfills. They are not recyclable. Using them is extremely wasteful and irresponsible; they are a stupid way to make coffee that simply cannot be sustained. Stop using them, stop using them, stop using them; “Kill the K-Cup, before it kills our planet.”
Read the rest at The Atlantic