There’s little happiness in the story, really. John Sylvan invented those little individual-serving coffee cups one places into the machines that seem to pop out of the woodwork almost everywhere, like mushrooms from the forest floor. (The irony of his name immediately strikes me–sylvan means “in or of the woods or forest”; one could take it more generally as “green”.) Yeah, the K-cup was his idea.
Some years back, Sylvan came up with the idea of small disposable containers of coffee, pre-blended, packed and sealed, that could be popped into a machine, a button pushed, with the result being a decent cuppa joe with almost no effort.
But there is the waste. Last year, nearly 10 billion of those little cups were sold. It might be important to stipulate that some are “recyclable”. But Sylvan himself maintains it is not: “No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable,” he told The Atlantic recently in an exclusive interview. Laid end-to-end, the cups sold last year could encircle the Earth at the equator more than a dozen times. Imagine a foot-and-a-half wide path of plastic cups wrapped around the planet, with fifteen thousand miles more to tie into a nice bow, waving in space.
Sylvan doesn’t use the cups. He claims to feel bad about his invention and the inevitable waste and pollution. His morning coffee comes from a regular, now almost old-fashioned, coffee-maker with a glass carafe. After inventing the idea and helping it get off the ground, Sylvan sold it to Keurig Green Mountain in 1997 for $50,000. Last year, the net income of the company, according to a financial report on Market Watch, was $592.52 million dollars. Just the point-five-two there at the end is fourteen times what the company paid Sylvan for his idea. The market capitalization of the company–the total value of its issued stock–is just shy of $9 billion. In a bit of what might be ironic symmetry, that is not far from one dollar for each K-cup sold last year.
In a claimed effort at sustainability, the Keurig Green Mountain reports in a recent “Sustainability Review” that its K-cups will be recyclable by 2020. Neither on the company’s home page, nor on its “Overview” page on its website does one see even a single image of a coffee K-cup. (Though, in fairness, one can spy one of the small pods labeled for Campbell’s Soup chicken broth.) Why it should take five years to get the cups to become recyclable and whether they really will be, are questions a skeptic might like to ask. In the meantime, I brew my coffee as does Sylvan–in a metal and plastic machine that sits on our kitchen counter. Recycled paper filters, coffee beans, and water are all we pour into it, and what comes out is either drunk from ceramic mugs or used to water plants; the coffee grounds and the used filters end up in our compost heap. I hope John Sylvan would approve.