When John Sylvan invented the K-Cup in the 1990’s, probably the most popular capsule among the millions of Americans who now have a push-button coffee machine in their kitchen, he never thought he would come to regret his invention.
“I don’t have one. They’re kind of expensive to use,” Sylvan told The Atlantic. Sylvan isn’t just worried about the negative impact of K-Cups on his wallet. As with plenty of environmental activists, he’s concerned about all those plastic pods ending up in landfills. With enough K-Cups sold in 2014 to encircle the globe at least 10.5 times, Sylvan seems to be regretting his invention.
“I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it,” he said.
When Sylvan sold his company back in 1997, he never expected that the machines he invented would become so popular that one in three households would have one, or that billions of the plastic #7 coffee pods he created would be chucked into the trash every year. Although Keurig Green Mountain’s sustainability report indicates that it’s working to make the single-use containers fully recyclable by 2020, Sylvan said that’s not possible with the way the pods are designed.
“No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable,” said Sylvan. “The plastic is a specialized plastic made of four different layers.”
Most recycling plants aren’t equipped to handle #7 plastic. Along with being tough to recycle, that plastic may contain BPA. The containers are also attached to a foil lid, which has to be separated from the plastic, or it can’t be recycled. Most users who are attracted to the convenience of K-Cups aren’t going to take the extra time to do that.
Sylvan told The Atlantic that he knows how to make the pods sustainable, but that Keurig Green Mountain refuses to listen to him. Companies will listen to consumers, however, if their bottom line and brand begins to be negatively impacted.