Last week the inventor of the Keurig K-Cup, John Sylvan, told The Atlantic that he sometimes feels bad he created the coffee pod.
My colleague Drake Baer recently published an article saying that the “Keurig K-Cup is a fundamentally American product — and that’s everything that’s wrong with it,” which conjures the image of Ugly Americans covering the planet with discarded plastic, buzzing around in a caffeinated daze as the world burns.
He and other anti-K-Cuppers make some valid points, but their main premise, that Keurig machines are a step in the wrong direction, has a crucial flaw.
It is a fundamentally American product — and that’s why it’s great. For all of its flaws, the invention of the K-Cup has made coffee easier to make than ever, which fits perfectly within the American lifestyle.
I’d argue that since Keurig grew to scale after becoming acquired by Green Mountain in 2006, it’s been the best thing to happen to coffee in the US. Here’s why.
It’s remarkably convenient.
The process of making a cup of coffee with a Keurig takes about 45 seconds. Even the Bialetti mini kettles that make a single cup of coffee take a few minutes to get steaming.
No, it’s not hard to make a traditional pot of coffee. But Keurig machines keep everybody moving in offices, and you can also make a quick cup at home before you head out the door.
An innovative product or service typically replaces an existing one with something superior, which can translate to increased efficiency. That’s exactly what Keurig machines do.
The coffee is perfectly good enough.
I love coffee, and I drink it black. I enjoy grabbing a nice cup with a friend and appreciating the subtle flavours of a particularly good blend. I am by no means saying that K-Cup coffee is a gourmet treat, but the best offerings (I particularly like Caribou’s K-Cups) are satisfying.
I will still buy a cup of Counter Culture Kenya blend from a café when I’m looking for something to savour. But when I need a boost at work in order to get something done, I’m happy with the mug of Newman’s Own that I made in the office kitchen in 45 seconds.
After all, even the worst K-Cup offering is better than Folgers instant coffee crystals stirred into hot water.
It’s an evolving product.
There is a waste problem with Keurig’s coffee pods, and it’s by all means a significant one. The plastic used is not recyclable in the US and most of Canada. There are some recyclable offerings, but in order to recycle them, you’d need to slice off the foil top, dump the coffee grounds, and toss the filter to isolate the plastic — but of course only the most dedicated K-Cup consumers will bother with that.
Last year, customers went through an estimated 9 billion K-Cups. All of that nonbiodegradeable plastic in landfills upset the pod’s creator, Sylvan, and inspired a small Halifax marketing agency to introduce the “Kill the K-Cup” movement earlier this year, which got some good traction online.
Keurig’s parent company, Keurig Green Mountain, seems to understand that increasingly green-conscious consumers want an alternative, and it’s why the company announced in its 2014 sustainability report that they are dedicated to creating a completely recyclable K-Cup by 2020.
And the machines aren’t total Earth-destroying monstrosities. Keurig devices use significantly less electricity, water, and coffee grounds than traditional drip coffee makers. Granted, Keurig Green Mountain conducted its own study, but it determined that an average of 12% to 15% of each pot of drip-brewed coffee is wasted at home and the office — translating into six gallons of water wasted per six-ounce cup, counting the irrigated rainwater used to grow the crop down to the water used to brew the final product.
The bottom line
Keurig is confronted with the challenge of creating a sustainable product in the next five years. If it fails and consumers stop buying K-Cups, then so be it; the market will have spoken and a better, less wasteful product will win.
In the meantime, I’ll be sipping a nice cup of Keurig-brewed coffee every morning.
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