Convenience versus sustainability

I’ve been muttering angrily to myself about the growing popularity of the single-cup coffee brewing systems for a while; it was inevitable that I’d write about this here.  I was – to use the vernacular – gobsmacked last December when I saw enormous displays devoted entirely to  a vast array of single-cup brewing systems, such as those made by Tassimo and Keurig. For all the media hype about people’s growing concern for sustainability and reducing their carbon footprint, our society keeps producing wasteful products at an alarming rate, all in the name of convenience.

Last Saturday I had a discussion with a representative of one of these brewing devices.  I was looking for a replacement glass chamber for my Bodum French Press (more about this later), which this store had always carried, only to find that almost the entire coffee section of the store is now devoted exclusively to these single brewers.  A representative of one of the companies asked me if I would like a sample; the poor thing didn’t know what she was in for.  In a polite (I hope) manner, I told her that I was not interested in purchasing her brewer, or any similar device, because of the sheer waste they produce.  Every time you make a cup of coffee, you must use and discard a plastic pod.  “But the pods are recyclable,” she said.  Yes, I countered, but think of all the energy and fossil fuels needed to produce the pods, ship them, and recycle them.  My Bodum generates  no waste, other than what was required to produce it, and can be washed and reused countless times (unless you break the glass container, of course ….).  In addition, I must drink the coffee provided by these brewers, so you can almost certainly forget buying fair-trade and ethically-grown coffee.

The latest disposable product that is being touted on commercials is Tide Pods; honestly, have we become so lazy that we can’t take the time to measure laundry detergent from one container and pour the results in the washing machine? So, now instead of one plastic bottle or cardboard box, we can buy several individually-wrapped packages of detergent.  The pods apparently dissolve, but I couldn’t find any description of the material used to house the detergent; I’m not optimistic that it’s chemical free.

The list goes on, of course, for example, the single-use, disposable Kleenex hand towels. The humble cloth towel is clearly insufficient for drying hands effectively.  This product is touted for its sanitary values but surely in the average household, once you’ve washed your hands, you won’t be spreading too many dangerous germs by using a cloth towel.  Then there is the Magic Eraser, the various Swiffer products, and so forth.

I think that in so many ways, we’re going backwards. I think that we’ve lulled ourselves into complacency by thinking that if products are recyclable, we’re not doing any harm by using them:  I think plastic water bottles are the perfect example of this phenomenon.  As I’ve mentioned above, I’m not sure how much thought people put into the energy and waste needed to produce and recycle these products.  What’s particularly alarming, of course, is that only a percentage of recyclable products are, in fact, recycled as is shown in the infographic below.  In previous blog posts, I’ve discussed various alternatives that we can use to minimize waste and toxic chemicals, so I’m not covering new ground, but I suppose I needed to vent:)