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The little capsule that could

From the May 2015 issue.

K-cup creator John Sylvan tells GCR Magazine why he shoulders regret over his coffee pod legacy.

When John Sylvan sits back and thinks about how his most popular invention has changed the world and helped create a single-serve coffee empire, he is mystified.

“It’s interesting,” he tells GCR Magazine. “I’m famous and infamous now.”

He is famous for creating Keurig Green Mountain’s flagship product: the K-Cup.

Originally designed more than 20 years ago to save office employees a trip to the local coffee shop, pod-based machines now sit in nearly one in three American homes.

“This little thing has revolutionised the way America starts its day, one cup at a time,” says Sylvan. “Almost everyone I know has one.”

At the same time, the American Co-founder of Keurig refers to himself as infamous for creating the capsule that is one of the latest targets of environmental groups worldwide.

Recent reports estimate the discarded K-Cups in 2014 alone could circle the Earth as many as 12 times.

And while Sylvan can’t help but take some pride in an invention that changed the way America makes coffee, regret is definitely something that weighs on his conscience.

“It’s good and bad,” Sylvan says of his legacy. “The bad is there is an environmental impact.”

Many environmental groups might call it the understatement of the year. The internet is rife with social media activists and groups intent on pressuring Keurig Green Mountain to make a recyclable version.

Luckily for these activists, there is a snowballing movement of innovators and competitors eager to see sustainable alternatives get into its machines. Sylvan is one of them.

Cup, cup, and away

The single-serve capsule industry is hotter than ever.

In fact, it’s the fastest growing segment of the global coffee market, which has trebled over the last five years to US$10.8 billion, according to Euromonitor.

Keurig Green Mountain has what many would call a monopoly in the sector, with 85 per cent of its US market. Last year, the K-Cup accounted for most of the company’s US$4.7 billion in revenue.

The company has come a long way since college roommates Sylvan and Peter Dragone co-founded Keurig in 1992. With a $100,000 out-of-pocket investment, the duo set out to find a simpler design for the coffee brewer.

Sylvan says that back then, the potential environmental impacts of his invention were not top of mind.

“It didn’t even really cross our minds,” he says. “If we had thought it would have been that successful, we would have come up with something else. We didn’t even stop to think about it.”

Oddly enough, Sylvan says he believes his original prototype was a more environmentally-friendly version. It involved a process not unlike making freeze-dried coffee. He believes the same result as a K-Cup can be achieved by separating the components with a centrifuge, packaging them in recyclable material, and re-combining everything at the last moment.

“It was painstaking, but it worked,” he says.

At the time, however, Sylvan didn’t have the resources to pursue this model, which is why they stuck with the version of the K-Cup still found in grocery stores today.

Sylvan says he had approached Keurig with his idea before leaving the company in 1997, but the idea wasn’t taken up. He says he doesn’t understand how “a product some guy invented in his kitchen” more than 20 years ago has not evolved since then.

“It works fine if you don’t have concerns for sustainability,” he says.

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