The little capsule that could

When John Sylvan sits back and thinks about how his most popular invention has changed the world and helped create a single-serve coffee empire, he is mystified. “It’s interesting,” he tells GCR Magazine. “I’m famous and infamous now.” He is famous for creating Keurig Green Mountain’s flagship product: the K-Cup. Originally designed more than 20 years ago to save office employees a trip to the local coffee shop, pod-based machines now sit in nearly one in three American homes. “This little thing has revolutionised the way America starts its day, one cup at a time,” says Sylvan. “Almost everyone I know has one.” At the same time, the American Co-founder of Keurig refers to himself as infamous for creating the capsule that is one of the latest targets of environmental groups worldwide. Recent reports estimate the discarded K-Cups in 2014 alone could circle the Earth as many as 12 times. And while Sylvan can’t help but take some pride in an invention that changed the way America makes coffee, regret is definitely something that weighs on his conscience. “It’s good and bad,” Sylvan says of his legacy. “The bad is there is an environmental impact.” Many environmental groups might call it the understatement of the year. The internet is rife with social media activists and groups intent on pressuring Keurig Green Mountain to make a recyclable version. Luckily for these activists, there is a snowballing movement of innovators and competitors eager to see sustainable alternatives get into its machines. Sylvan is one of them. Cup, cup, and away The single-serve capsule industry is hotter than ever. In fact, it’s the fastest growing segment of the global coffee market, which has trebled over the last five years to US$10.8 billion, according to Euromonitor. Keurig Green Mountain has what many would call a monopoly in the sector, with 85 per cent of its US market. Last year, the K-Cup accounted for most of the company’s US$4.7 billion in revenue. The company has come a long way since college roommates Sylvan and Peter Dragone co-founded Keurig in 1992. With a $100,000 out-of-pocket investment, the duo set out to find a simpler design for the coffee brewer. Sylvan says that back then, the potential environmental impacts of his invention were not top of mind. “It didn’t even really cross our minds,” he says. “If we had thought it would have been that successful, we would have come up with something else. We didn’t even stop to think about it.” Oddly enough, Sylvan says he believes his original prototype was a more environmentally-friendly version. It involved a process not unlike making freeze-dried coffee. He believes the same result as a K-Cup can be achieved by separating the components with a centrifuge, packaging them in recyclable material, and re-combining everything at the last moment. “It was painstaking, but it worked,” he says. At the time, however, Sylvan didn’t have the resources to pursue this model, which is why they stuck with the version of the K-Cup still found in grocery stores today. Sylvan says he had approached Keurig with his idea before leaving the company in 1997, but the idea wasn’t taken up. He says he doesn’t understand how “a product some guy invented in his kitchen” more than 20 years ago has not evolved since then. “It works fine if you don’t have concerns for sustainability,” he says. Keurig, who was bought out by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in 2006, says that Sylvan’s contributions were made during the company’s infancy, and that it is a fundamentally different company today. Thanks in large part to the success of the K-Cup, the company has been able to act as a leader in improving sustainability and the livelihoods of farmers at origin. It is now looking to improve its footprint on the consumer end, last year pledging to make a fully recyclable version of the K-Cup by 2020. A mountain of backlash While some estimate Keurig has produced as many as 60 billion K-Cups to date, the company could only confirm it sold 9.8 billion K-Cup pods in fiscal year 2014. With many comparing its popularity to the water bottle, the K-Cup as being seen an environmental headache. Unlike the recyclable water bottle, K-Cups are made using specialised #7 plastics, a mix only recyclable in a limited number of cities. Even then, the pod still needs to be separated into its various components, including filter, coffee grounds, and aluminium lid. Its newer products such as Vue, Bolt, K-Mug, and K-Carafe pods are made of recyclable #5 plastics, and can be fully recycled if disassembled. Sylvan says that because the cup is hot to handle after use, this can be a significant hurdle for the consumer. “People are more likely to throw them in a trash bag that ends up in the dump,” he says. The growing landfill problem is one of the reasons Canadian production company Egg Studios took on the cause in what has quickly become one of the more popular online crusades against the K-Cup yet. Its widely shared Kill The K-Cup video depicts a Cloverfield-esque scenario where flying saucers and robots made of K-Cups attack citizens with K-Cups. It has garnered more than 700,000 views on YouTube since January, and generated the #KillTheKCup hashtag still active on social media today. Egg Studios CEO Mike Hachey tells GCR Magazine that living in Halifax, a city that is introducing clear garbage bags to help police its strict recycling program, made him especially conscious of the environmental problem. And while the city can recycle K-Cups, the waste generated from his company’s Keurig machines was alarming. “When you see all that waste… we had to make a change,” he says. The change started by finding a more sustainable way to caffeinate the office, and led to the creation of an awareness video he hopes will help pressure Keurig to make a change before 2020. “It’s not about shutting Keurig down,” he says, “but about getting them to change the way they do things.” Forging towards sustainability Keurig Green Mountain reaffirmed its goal to make a recyclable version of the K-Cup in its 2014 sustainability report. Amidst the recent K-Cup backlash, the company says that while it is testing various designs, the challenge is more complex than it seems. The pods need to meet manufacturing requirements of the K-Cup system, be able to withstand heat, be easily puncturable, and work with all Keurig brewers. “Keurig has pledged to ensure that 100 per cent of our K-Cup packs are recyclable by 2020, with incremental portions of the K-Cup packs transitioning to a recyclable format each year between now and 2020,” says Sandy Yusen, Director of Community Relations and Corporate Communications at Keurig Green Mountain. “The recyclability of Keurig Green Mountain K-Cup packs is a challenge we take very seriously.” The company will be investing US$5 million into the Closed Loop Fund to help recyclers create the infrastructure to recycle the cups more easily. It is also looking at expanding its K-Cup take-back program, especially in communities with no municipal recycling. Water stewardship is another recent sustainability effort that Keurig Green Mountain has taken on. In an op-ed released via the Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire last March, Chief Sustainability Officer Monique Oxender points out that while Keurig brewers help consumers use water more efficiently by only drawing the amount needed to make a beverage, the company recognises the importance of water security on coffee growing communities.  “Our interest and investment in water extends beyond local water conservation to water security and ecosystem resilience in our global community,” Oxender writes. “The livelihood of our coffee growing communities depends upon water to grow coffee and food to feed their families.” Keurig Green Mountain aims to balance the water used in its 2020 brewed beverage volume for all of its beverages, ounce for ounce, through projects that restore water for natural and community uses. It estimates 370 million gallons of water is used to make its drinks annually. The 2014 sustainability report also highlights several other initiatives to help alleviate the company’s ecological impact. This includes reducing life-cycle GHG emissions of brewed beverages by 25 per cent, sourcing 100 per cent primary agricultural and manufactured products according to established Keurig Green Mountain responsible sourcing guidelines, and achieving zero waste-to-landfill at its owned and operated manufacturing and distribution facilities. Room for improvement While Keurig Green Mountain works hard on sustainable initiatives, Sylvan says that he does understand the challenge Keurig is facing.  “I wish they would do something to fix it,” he says. “I think they are locked in to what they have to do.”  Since Keurig’s patent on the original K-Cup expired in 2012, a number of competitors have come out claiming to have recyclable and biodegradable solutions. Global chemical company BASF, for instance, worked with Swiss Coffee Company to develop compostable single-serve capsules using ecovio, its compostable and biodegradable plastic. The package seals moisture, oxygen, and aroma with three layers, including an outer paper layer, a thin barrier film, and an ecovio-based inner sealing layer. According to BASF, the capsule is biodegradable and compostable to the European standard EN 13432. To meet this requirement, “at least 90 per cent of the materials have to be broken down by biological action within six months”. Eric Favre, who invented the Nespresso pod system, doubts whether biodegradable alternatives such as these are truly what they claim to be. “I don’t think it’s right to say they are degradable,” he tells GCR Magazine. He believes for something to be truly degradable, it would take no more than two years to break down. Anything longer is a false claim. He also sees another waste problem that lies in the drip-system process itself. “We throw out a lot of coffee grounds that still contain coffee,” he tells GCR Magazine. Like Sylvan, Favre has similar regrets about his initial pod. “The aluminium capsule was embarrassing,” he says. He explains that while the Nespresso pod is the most efficient single-serve system able to extract the most amount of coffee out of a bean, it requires a lot of aluminium. He believes the Monodor coffee system, which he created since leaving Nestlé Group, is more environmentally friendly. It has a similar design to the Nespresso capsule, but uses 1 gram of polypropylene, or #5 plastic, instead of aluminium. “Aluminium consumes energy, while the other creates it,” he says. Making amends While Sylvan may not be able to fully clear his conscience over the environmental problem he believes he created, his new company may help make amends. Zonbak, Dutch for “sun bucket”, aims to sell affordable solar panels that generate heat instead of electricity. Although he doesn’t believe the K-Cup is going anywhere soon, you won’t find one in his home. In fact, he wouldn’t even let GCR Magazine photograph him with one. “I make a pot of coffee in the morning,” he says. “If I don’t use it all, I dump out the rest. But it’s much cheaper to dump two cups of coffee than to make five cups of coffee with a K-Cup.” GCR

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