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What Is More Valuable: Material or People’s Time?

Tom Szaky | Wednesday April 29th, 2009 | 2 Comments

So many coffee lovers have switched to single portion delivery devices produced by a variety of brands, including Tassimo, Flavia and Green Mountain. The coffee taste is always fresh, perfectly brewed and one doesn’t waste extra coffee left from brewing a full pot.
The single dose cartridge is a composite of aluminum, plastic and coffee. Its used cartridge is currently not recyclable and is what Bill McDonough would call a “monstrous hybrid” since all three parts on their own are either compostable or recyclable, but together they make a unit that isn’t readily recyclable and thus is headed to the landfill. (The same is true for a wide range of common products too long to list here).
The solution to waste streams like this is to collect them and “dissemble.” The separation of the three basic materials is hard to automate and likely must be done by hand, at which point, the coffee can be easily be composted and the plastic and aluminum recycled.

This begs the question: where do you draw the line between the value of the material and the cost of the time it takes for people to render the material valuable? Is it just a straight economic question or should other factors come into play, like reducing the size of our landfills?
If it’s more than just economics, should the government get involved and provide incentives for people and companies that render “non-recyclable” materials recyclable? Or should this be approached from the other angle and should a tax be imposed on the production of non-recyclable material? Or maybe consumers will recognize that the convenience of single dose hybrid packaging comes with a cost, but then we are back to all too the familiar issue of externalities.
I’m interested in your thoughts.
Photo Courtesy of Toby Talbot / AP


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  • coffeeluva

    as a single serving coffee user myself, i pondered this issue long and hard and was relieved to find that there is a reusable single serving coffee filter. coffee grounds go in the compost, filter gets refilled for another delicious brew- no waste and no government required. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000DLB2FI

  • http://www.livedigitally.com Jeremy Toeman

    i don’t see much debate here… it’s between “some wasted coffee leftover in the pot” versus the resources required to (1) mine and process the aluminum, (2) drill for oil and make plastic, (3) assemble these things together with the coffee, and (4) all the combined shipping needed.
    something tells me that throwing out a few cups worth of brewed coffee is just, you know, MAYBE, better for the planet…
    convenience is inherently going to be the enemy of sustainability. it’s *always* more convenient to have a pre-sliced cheese nicely wrapped in plastic for me, but it’s *always* more destructive to make it this way…