On the morning that I started my first office job, a coworker walked me to the kitchen and pointed to a sleek looking appliance on the countertop. This was a response to my question about the “coffee situation” in the office. Apparently this machine was the answer.
Realizing that I was uninitiated, my new coworker selected a small plastic pod from a variety in the cupboard, inserted it into the machine, and pressed brew. Sixty seconds later I had a mug full of coffee. The quality was passable. There was no mess. It was simple, clean, automated.
This Jetsonian convenience is the Keurig’s pitch to the coffee drinking public, and judging by the nearly $5 billion in revenue that Keurig Green Mountain, the maker of the Keurig system, pulled in last year, that pitch is working. What does it mean that the Keurig system and its colorful little coffee pods are so popular?
Like many workplace technologies before it, the Keurig has successfully migrated to domestic life, bringing with it the sterility and efficiency that make the system so popular. But it’s hard to argue that the actual coffee is better, unless maybe you’re comparing it to something instant and stirred. Rather, what Keurig has done is streamlined the production of a single cup of coffee. You can have whatever type of hot drink you’d like, and so can your friend.
But there is a shared cost to this individual convenience. In case the #killthekcup campaign did not reach your corner of the internet, those little plastic pods, called K-cups, are not recyclable, reusable, or compostable. They will inevitably join the collective time capsule found in our landfills.
While many coffee drinkers now prefer more labor intensive, hand-crafted methods, like hand-grinding and pour over, the Keurig is an example of total defiance, like the Hummer in the age of the hybrid. Broth-making and home canning are growing in popularity, and yet making coffee is too much work? Even the Keurig’s creator, John Sylvan, recognizes the product’s failure. During an interview with The Atlantic earlier this year, he referred to it as “a cigarette for coffee, a single-serve delivery mechanism for an addictive substance.” Even so, the system’s revenue numbers offer a compelling counterargument: $5 billion speaks for itself.
K-cups are made of #7 plastic, a category for mixed layers of plastic and other materials, which prevents it from being melted down into a reusable medium. For a sense of scale on the waste bomb that this creates, an article last year in Mother Jones offers that if all 8.3 million of the K-cups discarded in 2013 were laid end to end they would wrap around the earth 10.5 times.
Let that image sink in: all those mini junk pods orbiting the Earth, surrounding us, almost a dozen times over. Now turn up the horribleness a couple of notches, if you can bear it. Keurig Green Mountain’s stated corporate mission is to place “a Keurig System on every counter,” a depressing thought for anyone who cares about the environment, that sterilized euphemism for the Earth, our home, the single planet on which human life exists. How many times can our discarded K-cups circle the Earth before it’s too many?
What about our own small environments at home or work? For many of us, the routine of making and drinking a cup of coffee in the morning may offer the best chance for reflection and peace, done in the quiet moments before commuting or before our phones begin delivering the urgency of work, news, and social media. Reducing the craft of coffee-making to vending machine convenience seems to miss the point. Must we apply the logic of the electric toothbrush to our coffee routine?
Strip away the branding and the pretentions of method, and coffee is simply water, heat, and beans. That’s a rather simple recipe. Wrapping it in #7 plastic and sticking it into a countertop robot seems like a strange way to enjoy something as wonderful as coffee. Unlike more labor-intensive processes, the Keurig is a highly inorganic process where you never actually lays eyes on the organic good, the coffee, until it is ready to drink. It may as well be neon green slime in the K-cups. The word perversion comes to mind, as does one of Michael Pollan’s helpful food rules: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
K-cups look less like food than carefully measured doses of something medicinal, like pediatric vitamins made to look like gummy bears. But with coffee another comparison comes to mind. There is an old (and incredibly tired) tradition of joking about coffee as “fuel” for humans, in part because it is a stimulant and can make you feel more alert and energized, and in part because of its color. But that joke feels increasingly uncomfortable as our food technologies encourage us to behave more like the machines that fossil fuels power. What is a fast food drive-thru if not the human imitation of a vehicle pulling up to a gas station? The very existence of the energy drink, which tends to be chugged, suggests that our relationship to food has been fundamentally corrupted by the way that we see ourselves.
There are times when I do indeed feel like a machine—a broken down and clunky one, in need of nourishment and repair. But perhaps I’m misinterpreting these symptoms. The body is not the only thing that requires nourishment. The soul, that thing in your self-consciousness that oscillates between dormancy and moments of blossom, needs your attention as well. Nourishing your soul can take time, quiet, and a bit of wandering. It’s a very inefficient process. Perhaps the next time I’m feeling like a human-bot in need of fuel, I’ll put down my iPhone and walk away from the screens and sensors and automated efficiencies of modern life, even if it’s just long enough to make a good cup of coffee.