We all know that recently coffee capsules (known also as K-Cups) became a fashion, with the support of some huge advertisement budgets. Was there a special reason for making coffee capsules? Did they provide a new service or cover a real social need? Not even a single one, as the only tangible benefit they brought was to companies selling capsules and the new coffee machines that can use them. Last year Americans bought 9 million K-Cups and K-Cup’s parent company, Keurig Green Mountain, made $4.7 billion in revenue. But recently the German city of Hamburg introduced a ban on buying “certain polluting products or product components” with council money. The ban includes specific terms for “equipment for hot drinks in which portion packaging is used” – specifically singling out the “Kaffeekapselmaschine”, or coffee capsule machine, which accounts for one in eight coffees sold in Germany.
The main argument for this ban is that “These portion packs cause unnecessary resource consumption and waste generation, and often contain polluting aluminium.” Jan Dube, spokesman of the Hamburg Department of the Environment and Energy, added that “The capsules can’t be recycled easily because they are often made of a mixture of plastic and aluminium.”
John Sylvan is one of the inventors of K-Cup argues that recycling of K-Cups is impossible “No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable. The plastic is a specialised plastic made of four different layers.”
Well, all of us who are familiar with the recycling challenges can easily understand that the complexity of the packaging – often a mix of different materials – combined with the dregs of organic waste from unused ground coffee sitting in the bottom of the pod makes them difficult to process in standard municipal recycling plants.
I consider the case of K-cups as a representative one of the challenges involved in the 4th industrial revolution that will generate thousands of new and fit-for-purpose materials. Each new material will generate, sooner or later, a new type of waste and a new recycling challenge. We need to understand, once more, that unless eco-design will be an integral part of the each and every industrial product that stimulates massive consumption, the only thing we are able to do is to wait until new products and materials will become new waste problems. But, as the case of e-waste demonstrates, in this case the required solutions come always late for a simple reason: we start to deal with the management of wasted materials, after they have been consumed and they are becoming an identifiable waste stream.
For the time being, there are companies that try to make compostable K-cups, like Caffe Vergnano and Honest Coffee Company. But I believe that this will be a kind of end-of-pipe solution for a problem that requires waste prevention. We do not need to invent circularities to sustain the current consumption rate of resources. We need to reduce it.