Eating & Drinking

New compostable coffee pods & a recycling service solve 20 year problem (that never should have been)

Bridgehead is set to announce it will soon start selling recyclable, compostable coffee pods — those colourful capsules you pop into a specialized appliance that brews a single cup of very fresh coffee. This comes on the heels of an announcement earlier this year by Toronto’s GoJava that they have expanded their coffee pod recycling service to include Ottawa.

Both companies seek to address the pods’ tragic flaw — they’re not easily recyclable. In order to ensure maximum freshness, the pods are created using complex layers of plastic and metal, which makes it very difficult – and thus uneconomical – to recycle.

Which means they end up in the trash.

A well-circulated YouTube video, Kill The K-Cup flashed the statistic that in 2014 “9.8 billion K-cups were sold worldwide, and if lined up end-to-end, those discarded pods would contain enough plastic to circle the globe more than 10 times.”

That was four years ago. Sales of K-cups did slump in 2016, due in part to a generally heightened environmental awareness, but sales by the millions continues.

Seeking to stem the flow, GoJava picks up pods from your home or office that are either the ones they supply or traditional pods (Tassimo and a host of companies included), and, because they specialize in recycling coffee pods, are able to separate the components: grinds are composted; metal is recycled, as is the plastic, which the company says is  eventually transformed into park benches and the like.

Likewise, Bridgehead’s coffee pod capsules, containing certified fair trade and organic grinds, will be “100% compostable.”

The initiatives by Bridgehead and GoJava to rectify the pod problem is truly exciting — but before we start doing back-flips, it might be worth asking, ‘Why did we have this problem to begin with?’

The problem should’ve been evident from the get-go back in 1998 when the pod was introduced. The previous year saw   environmentalism get a huge boost from the signing of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an unprecedented effort to curb greenhouse gases. But it was also a time when the popularity of Starbucks coffee was on the ascendancy, meaning more people were consuming java on the go and subsequently tossing more waste into the garbage.

Seeking a way to counter what he saw was a growing waste issue with regard to throw-away cups, Bostonian John Sylvan invented the coffee pod. The idea was to encourage people to use mugs at home or in the office rather than a throw-away cup. The pods, or so it was rationalized, were less wasteful.

It may have reduced the number of coffee cups being tossed into landfills, but it introduced an even more wasteful product into the market.

Even its creator eventually recognized his mistake.

Like Julius Robert Oppenheimer, whose rush into the production of the A-bomb led him to famously declare to President Truman that he had “blood on his hands”, Sylvan has similarly gone on record regretting his invention.

Professor and author of Controlling Technology: Ethics and the Responsible Engineer, Columbia professor Stephen H. Unger notes in an article in 2013 titled Reckless Use of Technology that, “There are strong incentives for innovators, and manufacturers, to downplay harmful aspects of their work. It is particularly unlikely that they will look carefully for, and call attention to, detrimental long-term effects…”.

He adds that, “The major burden of looking for harmful side effects of any technology has to fall on others, not on the original innovators (although it would be nice if they were alert to, and called attention to, possible problems).”

Essentially Unger is saying that, when introducing a new technology (or product) into the marketplace, the free market economy gives innovators and manufacturers the equivalent to a free pass when it comes to responsibility — though Unger does suggest that it would “be nice” if they thought about the consequences of their inventions. Nice, but not necessary. And if their morals and ethics should happen to be overcome by the “strong incentives” not to care about the “harmful long-term effects” then so be it.

Ergo, it would’ve been nice had Sylvan thought a little longer about his invention before going through with it, but he didn’t — and now society is stuck, once again, trying to solve another problem in a long list of ‘act first, think later’ inventions produced by an economic system that gives moral carte blanche to innovators and manufacturers.

While Sylvan’s mea culpea is admirable (especially in an age when business leaders hide behind the skirts of The Corporation – or a long line of lawyers – whenever an apology is required), he’s not the only one to blame.

Us? Guilty too?

(Slurp, gulp.) Yep. Us too.

But we’re too busy to think about the consequences of every action of every minute of every day! Where – we cry – was the free market’s invisible hand that was supposed to auto-correct for the introduction of such a reckless technology and save us from our predilection for ease and convenience?!?

As Unger points out, “Free market forces can be effective in slashing sales of products that cause noticeable harm to purchasers. But they don’t do much to inhibit sales of products that are unlikely to cause trouble for buyers. … [and here’s the kicker in relation to K-cups] The free market does nothing to shield the environment…”

Mea culpa all around, I guess.

Bridgehead’s compostable pods and GoJava’s recycling service is a step in the right direction. But scepticism leads me to doubt whether a population addicted to an addictive substance delivered cheaply and conveniently won’t easily make the switch to something more sustainable overnight. In the meantime, we’re stuck dealing with the reckless rush into a technology that should never have been introduced (nor popularized) in an age of unprecedented environmental awareness, and a free market economic system that encourages this exact kind of recklessness.