K-Cup Crusade

Have you heard about the crusade against K-Cups? In the unlikely case you need a refresher, “K-Cups” is the abbreviated term for those little vacuum sealed pods of ground coffee used with a Keurig machine to produce a single serving of coffee with the push of a button and less than a minute. A few years ago, Keurig machines were the it product, the must-buy at holidays or for weddings or housewarming. The crusade itself is even old news now. Way back toward the beginning of 2015, one of the founders declared his regrets for inventing a product that in a single year (2014), produced enough waste to circle the globe more than 10 times. The Internet rallied. First of all, what a novel thought, that there exists an entrepreneur who thinks about more than his net worth, who admitted he wished he did something differently. Secondly, how could he have been so thoughtless? We, millions of followers, succumbed to the promotions and temptations of technology and then were FORCED to buy billions of pods that could not be recycled. What a calamity! Oh have we learned our lesson.

The reactions I came across were fairly unanimous in their abject hate toward K-Cups. There was little controversy over the suggestion to eliminate K-Cups from your diet for the betterment of the world and your taste buds. I stood by, a little irked. Why such consensus about K-cups? Couldn’t we all unite over something more significant?

I was reluctant to take another side in the crusade, until now. A little more recently, I read a Thrillist post shaming K-Cup users that was so terribly done it made me angry. Now I will have my piece. No, I won’t heap praise on the product, but I would like to point out why this topic seems overblown.

#1 Which is worse?
How many people have used Keurig machines in their offices? In my opinion, adding Keurig machines can have a positive impact. Yes, with businesses subsidizing cups for their workers, some people may have had cups they

Don't even get me started about how ineffective Starbucks cup lids are against leaks.

Don’t even get me started about how ineffective Starbucks cup lids are against leaks.

wouldn’t otherwise. However, in some of those places, before the machine arrived, do you know what those regular drinkers would do? They would go elsewhere, purchase a brewed cup that came in a paper or styrofoam cup with a plastic lid, bring it back to their office, and then toss it in the bags headed for a landfill. How many times around the world would those go?

#2 Convenience Factor
In one of my recent jobs, we placed a Keurig machine on top of a tiny table next to a tiny fridge in the hallway outside our various shared offices. Now, you might say (or as Thrillist is pretentiously exhorting), put a coffee maker there and use fresh grounds! I say, are you kidding? What a mess. Do you know how rarely this area was cleaned? To get to the closest sink, you had to walk down the hall, through one set of doors, across an atrium and through another door…and that was for a bathroom sink. Washing a pot and filter and any other components was unlikely to happen.

#3 Simplicity
Let’s acknowledge that since many of us require caffeine to function effectively, coffee is probably here to stay for awhile. If you clicked on the Thrillist link, you’ll see that the #1 listed reason to quit K-Cups is “You shouldn’t make coffee like a monkey.” Really, this is your argument? “Our ability to use complex tools is what separates us from other primates.” I guess the author is a fan of those fancy corporate espresso machines that are so complex that they can impossible to figure out.
My thought is if K-Cups provide a quick source of caffeine to get someone’s brain functioning in order to use other complex tools to solve critical world problems, then it’s OK that they didn’t have to use much of their brain to make that cup!

#4 Bigger Picture
What frustrates me the most is that the Atlantic interview that got everyone riled up was actually somewhat balanced. The reporter pointed out significant facts about how other home coffee machines use more electricity, brew inefficiently and result in plenty of wasted water [update: I came across a study that was externally-reviewed (yet, of course, commissioned by a biased source) that found single-serve coffee capsules have a lower overall environmental impact)], how non-renewable resources are used to transport coffee to places like Starbucks and for the customers to drive themselves there, and how coffee itself is a water-intensive crop. “Thinking about all of this has been almost enough to make me feel like every coffee method is so far from perfect that I should just give up entirely,” Hamblin said.

When other media outlets picked up the story, did they include these facts? Not so much. Not Business Insider, not CNN, not The Washington Post, to name a few.
It goes to show, take any news story about your grains of coffee with a grain of salt.

Championing Food Waste Reduction

Have you noticed the flurry of activity and media coverage about food waste? At some point during this recent lull in my blog, it felt like everywhere I turned I encountered an article or conference or event related to individuals, companies and governments making efforts to use what is normally tossed.

A few highlights:

  • At the Blue Hill WastED pop-up in March, I dined on fried fish cartilage, salad made from discarded fruit and vegetable peels, and a vegetable burger that was a total mashup of scraps — from the vegetable pulp to the bread trimmings that made the bun. Nearly every regional media outlet reported on the restaurant.

    Chefs across the world are following suit — this past June, a Barcelona restaurant served an inspired four-course “Gastro-Rescue Dinner” that took advantage of tomato squeezings, misshapen eggplant, and the meat scraped from skeletons of filleted salmon, to name a few.
  • “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” is the theme of Expo Milano 2015, the Universal Exposition which runs from May 1 – October 31, 2015 in Milan, Italy and expects to have more than 20 million visitors. For three months, some of the Expo leftovers are being served to needy people in an abandoned nearby theatre, in partnership with the local Catholic charity. 40 prominent chefs will pitch in for one of the months, creating gourmet meals out of the leftovers.
  • Chef Dan Barber is being recognized further for his book, The Third Plate, now a James Beard Foundation Book Award winner. From reading it, I learned how complicated it can be to fish, farm, cook, serve, and eat responsibly, and how deeply connected our menu preferences are to the earth’s ecological system.
  • Kangaroo tail, anyone? Chef Curtis Stone is a champion for maximizing ingredients, which he showcases at his James Beard Nominated LA restaurant, Maude, also a James Beard Foundation Award Nominee.
  • Governments are taking action to reduce food waste! France’s legislative body passed a measure that bans supermarkets from destroying or tossing edible unsold food. When foods were nearing “sell by dates,” supermarkets found them difficult to sell and therefore threw them away–and sometimes went to extreme measures to keep foragers out of the bins. The law requires the stores to donate food to charities or for animal feed; otherwise they face fines and jail time. Here in the U.S., Massachusetts’ commercial food waste ban went into effect on October 1, 2014. The regulations require institutions and businesses disposing more than one ton of organic waste per week to donate or reuse the edible food and compost the rest. (One ton still seems like a lot, does it not?)
  • Blue Apron continues to expand its following. It announced $135 million in new funding this June. According to Eater’s published analysis of its prominence, “Blue Apron built its empire on the idea of reducing food waste.” Not only does it help customers be more efficient, it also supports sustainable farming practices among its farmers.
  • I’m encouraged to think that public awareness is increasing. The issues aren’t brand new, of course, and have been in the news for many years. Last month, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) released the results of its 2014 research on U.S. Consumers’ perception of food waste. In terms of knowledge and awareness, 42% of respondents said they saw or heard information about wasted food in the previous year. 16% looked for information about reducing food waste. 24% of respondents characterized themselves as “very knowledgeable” about ways to reduce their personal levels of food waste, and 38% say they are “fairly knowledgeable.” Do more people know more in 2015?

    It can get lonely to sit at my computer and read and write about food waste concerns and my personal quests. I’m thrilled to reach any one person with my blog, and to encourage any friend or acquaintance in person. But do enough people really care? What else can I be doing?

    I’ve been fortunate to meet and discover a growing community of regular people who are creatively and smartly making things happen. They keep me inspired:

  • Finally, a grocery store chain in the United States (out in California of course) and a start-up venture called Imperfect Produce plan to sell less-than-perfect produce at a discounted rate. This adds value to the perfectly edible product farmers sometimes find easier and cheaper to throw away (Via NPR)
  • Others are creating a marketplace for surplus food; through a website or app, they connect those with excess food with organizations poised to use it. In Massachusetts, there’s Spoiler Alert. In Northern California, there’s CropMobster.
  • What about all that packaging we waste? A pair of entrepreneurial designers created a product called Loliware, which are flavored, edible, biodegradable cups that serve as an alternative to single-use cups that get tossed into a landfill.
  • These are the champions! I can’t wait to see what’s next.

One Year

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my first blog post! Happy anniversary Make Haste Not Waste! Thank you to everyone who tunes in to hear/see what I’m up to.

Yesterday was also the day I heard a story on NPR about the National Resources Defense Council’s latest report on food waste.

I know I haven’t devoted much space yet to the issue of food waste on a national or global scale. It is a serious subject that involves the environment, economics, politics, social justice, and more. If you are tired of reading and want a quick overview in the form of video/infographics, watch this:

If you want more context, check out one of the NRDC’s extensive reports here, or their blog.

I made it my goal, starting last year, to reduce my contribution to the waste. While I haven’t yet started weighing my garbage and my compost (don’t count that out as a possibility! I’m waiting for Leanpath to make affordable home units), I can look at changes in my food spending.

I have been using a program for about 6 years now in which I try to track and categorize my spending. My husband used the same and we merged our tracking together when we married 3 years ago. Other factors are involved, of course, so I add the caveat here that this is not perfectly scientific:

Dates: January 1 – September 18  
  Grocery Expenditure Dining Expenditure
2011 X (Baseline) X (Baseline)
2012 X + 1% X + 10.3%
2013 X – 9% X – 1.9%

This drop occurred in the face of rising food prices: according to the USDA Economic Research Service, the Food Consumer Price Index increased 3.7% in 2011, 2.6% in 2012, and is predicted between 1.5 and 2.5% for 2013.

See? It pays to not waste!

Yesterday’s report addressed a specific issue of food labeling–the confusing “Best by” and “Sell by” dates that aren’t necessarily being used correctly, responsibly, or sensibly. Date labeling is almost completely unregulated, and “best by” or “use before” dates might simply indicate the manufacturer’s idea of peak freshness. The suggestion was that there be a clear, standardized system for consumers, more useful information, such as safe handling instructions, and transparency about methods for selecting dates.

I think about the progress that can be achieved in one year, in terms of increased awareness and policy change, and I’m not sure change is happening as quickly as it should. I applaud the NRDC for its efforts to break the problem down into parts. Imagine if the consumer started seeing a “Freeze by” date on all of their perishables–perhaps that would help shape a culture of planning and preserving. But these parts still need action and effort and advocacy. The UK did it: the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) started an initiative called Love Food Hate Waste (sound familiar?) and measured in 2011 a reduction in avoidable household food and drink waste of 18% since 2006/2007.

Change in the United States would probably require our politicians to take on these subjects–difficult, perhaps, when they are stuck fighting over the debt ceiling. Can things change? I sure hope so. And I know it is hugely challenging. But if you think about it, only in the past century or less has our food waste has become so rampant. Maybe it will take 100 years to get things under control!