Thursday March 05, 2015

K-Cup inventor regrets creating non-recyclable Keurig coffee pod

John Sylvan, the inventor of the popular Keurig K-Cups, tells 'As It Happens' that he regrets making the non-recyclable, single-serve coffee pods, because they are bad for the environment.

John Sylvan, the inventor of the popular Keurig K-Cups, tells 'As It Happens' that he regrets making the non-recyclable, single-serve coffee pods, because they are bad for the environment. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Listen 7:57

John Sylvan may have invented the K-Cup — the ubiquitous single-serve plastic coffee pod — but that doesn't mean he uses it or the proprietary brewers produced by Keurig that are required to serve them at home.

"I don't have one," Sylvan tells As It Happens host Carol Off. "I find them rather expensive per cup... I don't really know why people have them in their house."

In fact, the Boston-based inventor regrets his creation now, not only because of its relative cost, but mostly because it is non-recyclable. 

John Sylvan

K-Cup inventor John Sylvan (LinkedIn)

Keurig Green Mountain has admitted its product is non-recyclable, but has pledged to produce fully recyclable K-Cups by 2020.

However, Sylvan doesn't believe the current product design can meet that pledge. 

"You can't recycle that package, I don't care what Green Mountain says," Sylvan insists.

"The issue with coffee is that once it's exposed to oxygen it starts to go bad, so you need a long shelf life for the coffee. What they typically package coffee in the stores is aluminum which is 100 per cent impervious to oxygen, so you need a plastic that approaches that capability. So [K-Cups] have a plastic packet that's made from four different layers."

Those four layers need to be separated in order to be recycled, which is difficult and time-consuming to do. Also, few municipalities recycle #7 plastic, which is used to create the air-tight cups.

Keurig coffee maker

Green Mountain Coffee single-serve K-Cups in a Keurig coffee machine. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

"There's other ways to do it, but they're not exploring other ways to do it," Sylvan says. "They're going to keep making those little plastic cups forever, because they can't think outside the box."

"You can stick you're head in the sand and ignore it... or you can address it from an engineering standpoint."

In the meantime, many on social media have turned to highlighting the product's wastefulness to dissuade others from using them altogether.

For instance, a video called "Kill the K-Cup" produced by Halifax-based Egg Studios was a viral hit, with its Cloverfield-style parody featuring murderous monsters made of discarded K-Cups.

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.

Ironically, Sylvan initially intended his invention to balance out the number of coffee cups brought to the office.

"Instead of stopping at Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts on the way to work to get coffee, you'd go to work and get a cup of coffee [there], which would make it kind of environmentally neutral," he explains.

So how does he Sylvan make his coffee now?

"I make a pot of coffee in the morning [using] a thermal carafe... and the night before, when I go to bed, I put the coffee in, I put the water in, set the timer and when I get up in the morning there's a pot of coffee."

"We throw away a lot of coffee, but it's still cheaper on a per-cup basis than trying to make it with a K-Cup."

Kuerig bought Sylvan's stake in the company in 2007, but he used those funds to buy stock for $3.20 a share, according to The Atlantic.

Two years ago, he turned a tidy profit by selling that stock at $140 a share.