Innovation and Waste: Environmental Policy in the ‘K-Cup’ Era

Alyssa Wali

Last week, Keurig “K-Cup” creator John Sylvan admitted to regretting his invention: plastic pods containing concentrated coffee mix, which are inserted into Keurig coffee machines to produce an individualized cup of joe. Because coffee is a staple for many, the widespread use of the machine and its K-Cups have contributed considerably towards the amount of waste produced by a single individual.

In fact, Keurig claims to have sold approximately 10 million K-Cups in 2014 alone — none of which are recycled, as the recycling process would require the separation of various materials. The pods are made with various plastics, and cannot be reused, although the company has committed to making the product fully recyclable by 2020. Nevertheless, in an era of “busyness,” will people really take the time to properly dispose of the single use K-Cups? Unfortunately, the answer is likely to be no. While K-cups aim to make coffee consumption easier and faster, their use is subject to the “busyness” culture and the low regard for personal environmental responsibility that accompanies it.

Environmental concerns over human consumption are not new. Indeed, scientists have been warning about the effects of human-made climate change for quite some time, reaching a new level of popularity with Al Gore’s 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” On a global scale, various efforts have been made to curb carbon emissions, from the Kyoto Protocol to the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. Yet while these international pacts have successfully set targets for reducing greenhouse gases, they are largely voluntary, with participating countries having the legal ability to withdraw at any time — weakening their strength and enforceability as a result.

Canada exercised this right in 2011, formally leaving the Kyoto Protocol that it had helped established just over a decade earlier. In doing so, the government cited several concerns, including an inability to meet strict emission targets and the lack of participation on the part of newly developing countries. Although Canada has since committed to reducing harmful emissions, this move saved the Canadian economy 14 billion dollars, demonstrating the value of economic prosperity over environmental concerns.

While discussion and debate about climate change has mainly centred on hydrocarbon emissions, plastics are also at the forefront of environmental concern. Although plastic recycling programs do exist in Canada, the consumption of plastic products has increased considerably relative to recycling initiatives. Globally, waste management takes a variety of forms — and sometimes even, no form. For example, sea pollution has led to the formation of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch“, a trash mass made up of non-decomposable plastics and other marine debris that spans from the west coast of North America all the way to Japan. Because that area does not technically fall within any single jurisdiction, no country is willing to incur the costs necessary to reduce and eventually eliminate the garbage patch.

Despite growing environmental concerns, innovation has continued to be a driving force in the economy. Companies invest millions of dollars in research and development each year, and individual entrepreneurship is widely encouraged in this technology age. However, there is a need for balance between innovation and waste production: how far are we willing to innovate without facing the environmental consequences of our actions?

This question touches on what has been a long-standing debate between environmentalists and economists, each of whom propose very different public policies for addressing issues of sustainability. Should we be environmentally cautious, or should we continue to fuel the economy by the most effective means necessary? Framed like that, the two options seem mutually exclusive — but is there potential for a “middle ground”?

Although innovations such as Sylvan’s K-Cup can lead to greater waste production and environmental harm, they can also lead to smarter technologies, such as battery-operated vehicles. Society must be willing to recognize that it is possible to innovate while respecting the environment. Without implementing significant changes, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will continue to grow and natural resources will be further compromised by human consumption. In Canada, several provinces have attempted to combat carbon emissions by enacting a carbon tax, which aims to incentivize more efficient fuel use. Not only can this be expanded to other provinces, but the country could also adopt recommendations from the National Resources Defense Council and push for the creation of more recyclable plastic products.

While Keurig is reformulating its K-Cup production and moving toward a recyclable pod, there are still many other products that are comprised of non-recyclable plastic materials. Grounding the above policies in legislation could meaningfully reduce the amount of environmental waste produced. Canada, along with other nations, must be willing to actively commit to binding environmental targets and policies, both domestically and internationally, to balance future environmental sustainability with economic development.


Alyssa Wali is a 2016 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Queen’s University, where she completed a major in Global Development Studies, and a minor in Political Studies. Alyssa’s main areas of interest include environmental policy, educational policy and labour policy.

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