Does My Keurig Make Me a Bad Person?

How the culture war landed in my coffee cup.

Photos | and Rob Hainer via

Photos | (left) and Rob Hainer via (right)

Today’s question: Can you own a Keurig coffee maker and still be a good person? I’m asking for a friend.

OK, that’s not true. I’m asking for me. Until last week, I was only dimly aware that the question might even exist. While the culture wars raged on elsewhere, I — ensconced blissfully in ignorance — started every working day at 5 a.m. with a piping hot cup of coffee, produced roughly 15 seconds after I pressed the button on the relatively new Keurig machine my dad gave me late last year. The convenience of it all was invigorating, transforming my early mornings from bleary-eyed fumblings into caffeine-augmented alertness. I can’t lie: I loved my coffee maker.

Then I found out I am one of History’s Worst Monsters.

Perhaps that’s overstating it a little bit. What I found out, though, was that my Keurig places me on the wrong side of the line that divides environmentalists from conspicuous consumers. And, good liberal that I am — or try to be, anyway — I’m not used to being on the wrong side of that line.

The first clue I was doing things wrong was when a friend posted this Atlantic article to Facebook. Turns out Keurigs are regarded as pretty wasteful. The company’s “pods” — made of plastic and paper, also known as K-Cups —aren’t recyclable or even biodegradable. And now, it seems, they’re starting to fill up landfills.

Keurig Green Mountain is secretive about how many K-Cups the company actually puts into the world every year. The best estimates say the Keurig pods buried in 2014 would actually circle the Earth not 10.5 times, but more than 12.

“If you ever find yourself throwing out a K-Cup, and then you remember that 13 billion went into landfills last year, do you feel okay contributing to that?” said Hachey. “That’s what it comes down to.”

Even the inventor of the K-Cup has regrets. “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it,” John Sylvan told The Atlantic.

Then I found my more environmentally minded friends had already drawn their bright lines on the matter. It’s a culture war divide that, in our literal times, has even been imagined as a real war being won by murderous, malevolent K-Cups.

“Keurig machines: Why?” asked one friend.

“Crappy coffee,” sniffed another.

And: “Holy crap — wasteful is an understatement!”

And: “Don’t own one. Never will.”

One friend even likened Keurig use to wife-beating. Keurig users know it’s wrong, he posited, but do it anyway.


The tradeoff

Like I said, I didn’t expect to end up on the wrong side of environmental correctness. I’ve made more than a few jokes about people who own Hummers. I roll my eyes when conservatives groan and moan about government mandates to use energy-efficient light bulbs. My wife and I moved to Philly in part because big cities make it easier to leave a smaller footprint. We live in a big building, sharing heating energy with our neighbors, don’t own a car, walk to do most of our errands, and — as local law requires — recycle a fair amount of the stuff we do use.

But: I really like my Keurig coffee machine. And I’m going to keep it.

Part of it is because I realize that almost all of us make tradeoffs when it comes to the environment. Unless you’re a vegan locavore cave-dweller who lives on geothermal heat and composts your own poop, the truth is you’re leaving a little bit of a mess behind every single day. Every choice — from coffee drinking to an airplane flight to the clothes you buy — has an impact, and not all of it is positive. Most of us do the best we can — and fall short in different ways. The only way to have no impact? Be dead. 

That last paragraph could be used to justify all manner of environmental sins, though, couldn’t it? “We can’t be perfect, so why not indulge?” could apply to the Hummer owner as much as it does to me and my coffee machine. And few of us want to leave a messy, polluted planet behind for our kids. How do we know where to draw the line?

I’m not sure, honestly. But I think the answer involves recognizing that, while we all make our choices, it’s not easy to make those choices alone. I’m glad that environmentalists are around to provide some peer pressure, even if I’m resisting it in this particular case. And I’m glad that we have governments that help us set parameters for our wastefulness — that require fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, say, or push us to recycle at the local level. That means, of course, that the government may someday come for my Keurig machine the way it’s gone after companies that pollute the air and water. When that day comes, I’ll have to sigh and move on to another way of procuring my coffee.

In the meantime, I don’t have to be a jerk about it. We’ve decided in our household to stop buying the standard Keurig K-Cups and move instead to the Trader Joe’s version, which makes a tasty cup of coffee and, oh yeah, just happens to be recyclable. Thank God.

So does owning a Keurig make me a bad person? I hope not. When it comes to environmental matters, it’s hard to be truly good. Hopefully we can make up for our shortcomings by trying to be a little more thoughtful.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.