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

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

Tom Szaky is the Founder and CEO of TerraCycle, Inc. a company that makes eco-revolutionary products entirely from garbage! TerraCycle, since its humble beginnings in a Princeton University dorm room, is committed to being a triple bottom line company. Tom at the ancient age of 19 learned about composting with worms. The concept of using tiny little worms to turn food waste into a powerful, organic fertilizer fascinated Tom, who was appalled by the amount of food discarded by his campus's cafeteria. Tom started TerraCycle with no investors from a friend's garage by building a Worm Gin where he could house millions of worms in a small area. He all but bankrupted himself and maxed out all his credit cards to build the machine. With the help of friends he would shovel pounds of rotten, maggot-infested food from the Princeton cafeterias. Without any money left over, Tom could not afford to buy bottles to package his fertilizer. That's when the sustainability gods smiled on Tom, who was up one night wandering the streets Princeton in search of an answer to his packaging dilemma. It just happened to be recycling night and Tom realized that millions of homes were putting billions of free bottles out on the curb once a week! That serendipitous moment set everything to follow into motion. Slowly he began to finance his infantile start up by winning business plan contests. Finally he hit the pay dirt! He won the million dollar grand prize at the Carrot Capital Business plan contest. However, the financiers of the contest wanted to move TerraCycle away from used bottles and away from it's environmental focus. Despite being on the verge of bankruptcy, Tom turned down the money. In the six years since then TerraCycle has grown to a multi-million dollar company that doubles in size every year. Still we are committed to our triple bottom line beginnings. Still making our products from other's people waste. Still based in an Urban Enterprise Zone in Trenton, NJ. Still a second chance employer. Find out how and why, here at triplepundit.com

2 responses

  1. 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…

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