Waste: The Dark Side of the New Coffee Craze 

Single-cup brewing is the hottest and most lucrative sector of the coffee market nationwide, but it's also producing massive amounts of trash.

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For all their micron measuring, Peet's product developers have failed to solve the environmental problems posed by single-cup coffee. In fact, the company hasn't publicly addressed the issue of sustainability surrounding its new product line since it launched. After repeated requests for an interview for this story, a spokesperson from Peet's' public relations company provided an email statement. It acknowledged the environmental challenges, emphasizing that they're an industry-wide dilemma, reminded me that the company's roasting facility in Alameda is Gold LEED certified, and evoked the chain's longstanding commitment to sustainable practices "from bean to cup."

Keurig's parent company, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, is open about the need to find a more sustainable alternative to its current systems. The company offers a refillable cup, used with your own ground coffee, that solves the packaging waste problem completely. But it also negates the mess-free convenience of the pods. So far Green Mountain's next-best offer is a program for collecting used K-Cups from participating businesses. The cups are separated for composting and energy-from-waste processing, an incineration process that generates energy.

But for Keith and other environmentalists, energy-from-waste technology is just as problematic as landfilling. Noxious chemicals are inevitably released, they say, and building incineration infrastructure creates pressure to feed it. A Canadian company is offering another improvement — a mostly compostable capsule that works with Keurig machines. The capsules come in a plastic outer-wrap, though, and they're not compostable in all commercial facilities. "They're still 100 percent trash for us," Jewell said.

There's no real solution in sight, leading many to wonder how we could lack the foresight to get into such a conundrum in the first place. "Why are we creating a problem and then saying, 'What are the two bad options we're going to choose from?'" Keith said.

I recently spoke with Sylvan, the founder of Keurig. He hasn't been involved with the company since he was squeezed out in 1997, before Green Mountain bought it and made it a household name. I asked him if he'd thought about the environmental implications of the product while he was building the prototypes. "Not at all," he told me, on the phone from Boston. "There's nothing green about it."

He estimated that Keurig single-cup brewing machines produce ten times more solid waste than a single-cup serving made in a drip machine would. "People didn't think too much about that back then," he said, pausing a bit before he went on, "I feel kind of guilty. The world's changed in fifteen years." He told me he's proud he created something that's so well loved, but "hindsight's 20/20," he said. "I wouldn't do it now."

Today, Sylvan is working on a solar power company. He developed a technology that converts heat to power, and says he hopes it will change how people live — this time for the better. "I felt like I had to make a point of making something green," he said.

As for the future of single-cup coffee: "People will keep using them until what?" he chuckled, "hell freezes over?" 

Correction: The original version of this story misstated how long humans have been brewing coffee.

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