Europeans have indulged in coffee pods for over a generation. The single-use gadgets migrated to Japan and then the USA, where at first Flavia, a division of Mars, cornered the market. The dot-com at which I worked years back was a customer: I still remember the demo from our facilities manager—slip your favorite flavor in, push a button, no waste, no fuss, no mess! No burned coffee sludge!
The slick little contraptions, made with plastic, foil, and of course, coffee grounds, create a tidy single cup of Joe. Whether the rest of those pods’ life-cycle is tidy is open for debate. Most likely, those used pods, like the single use containers of half-and half, end up in the trash and then some landfill. Now Green Mountain, which practiced and preached sustainability before many of use could pronounce that word, has become the target of critics who say that the company’s growth, fueled mostly by those pods, threatens to sully its reputation.
Coffee pods are a brilliant business idea. Most manufacturers employ the “razor blade” strategy: you buy the machine, and then are stuck buying pods configured for those machines. My family, who generally prefers Greek (or Armenian or Turkish) coffee, bought a machine for our father a few years back, which became the favorite toy in the house. When you do not play video games, these machines are as good as it gets . . . push a button and the fun begins, crave a latte and things get wild. As the older generations say, they are a great “conversation piece.” The tinge of guilt resulting from the mess is negated by the fact that we actually clean out the pods, compost the grounds, and recycle the pods. Dare I say most families cannot be bothered, and therein lies the problem.
Coffee pods, or K-Cups, really are not a problem for Green Mountain: 80% of its $800 million-plus annual sales come from these pods. According to Green Mountain’s managers, there are some environmental benefits: less waste results from making a pot of coffee for the office that no one drinks, and then ends up the drain. Point taken: so if people like Flavia or Green Mountain Coffee, and do not bring disposable Starbucks cups into the office, perhaps they have an argument. Dumping a pot of coffee down the drain is wasteful—but not as toxic as say . . . paint thinner. The disposal of those pesky pods is still an issue, even if they are still a sliver of the billions of cups of coffee consumed each year.
To its credit, Green Mountain is exploring more recyclable and compostable packaging. Mars partners with TerraCycle in a program that permits offices to ship used Flavia packs to a facility that churns them into products like pencil cases or notebooks—so that is one workaround Green Mountain could pursue. Darby Hoover of the Natural Resources Defense Council suggested prepaid envelopes that consumers can just fill with empty pods, which would then end up in facilities that would repurpose them.
It is all so complicated, which at a fundamental level is ridiculous because in the end, it is just coffee. Yes, I repeat: it is just coffee, words that ring heresy from Seattle to San Francisco. But seriously: does the need for convenience really need to trump concern over waste? I am glad coffee has evolved since the plug-in percolators I remember from the 1970s; but a machine in the office, a tasty option for office coffee, and mugs are the simplest option—no life-cycle analysis needed.