No wonder when they set out to make a short film about this creeping monster within our midst, they portrayed it as an alien invasion that destroys the world.
Farfetched, perhaps, but it gets your attention.
Perhaps you haven't noticed, but the once-wide aisles of grocery stores – not to mention Canadian Tires, hardware, electronics and office supply stores – are being increasingly squeezed by … coffee.
It is called the Invasion of the K-Cup: pre-packaged single servings of ground coffee that require a bar-code-reading machine to decipher and, sadly, no instructions at all as to what to do with the little plastic pods after the coffee has been poured.
To call them ubiquitous is to devalue the word. These machines and their small plastic-foil-and-paper pods first took Europe, then Australia, now North America. Two years ago, the industry was said to be worth $12-billion. Four of 10 Canadian households now "brew" their coffee this way and the percentage is still soaring.
It has always struck me as odd that those you would expect to be most aware, and therefore most conscientious, could be so blind. Bottled water was sold as healthy, but only for the drinker, not the planet. K-Cups are sold as convenient, but hardly for the world.
One instantly out-of-date estimate claims that the number of pods produced by one company alone, Keurig Green Mountain, would stretch 10.5 times around the equator. The Vermont-based company says it has a small percentage of recyclable pods available now and hopes to have them widely available by 2020 – but just imagine what five more years of such waste will amount to.
A few small companies, like Toronto's Club Coffee, are offering coffee pods that can go into the green bin – a welcome but minuscule dent in the "monster" problem.
You begin to see, then, why a creative film company down east would make a short film called Kill the K-Cup before it Kills Our Planet to raise public awareness. Halifax's Egg Studios teamed up with the Social Bean coffee shop and produced a short horror film based on the 2008 thriller Cloverfield, but in this case the monster destroying the world is throwing giant, exploding K-Cups into the streets.
After viewing, you can appreciate why a small coffee roasting company in Eastern Ontario might resist pressure to market its product in these pods – even at the cost of lost sales opportunities.
Craig and Amber Hall started up Equator Coffee Roasters in 1998 and, last year, grossed $2.2-million supplying coffee beans to local outlets. They also operate two popular cafés, one located in their small-town base of Almonte, the other in nearby Ottawa. Faithful customers swear by the freshness of the Equator products.
As fair trade purchasers of beans from such distant places as Guatemala and Ethiopia, the Halls came to the decision that if they were going to be ethical at one end of the chain they should be ethical at the other end as well. Despite market pressures, Equator would have nothing to do with plastic pods.
Mr. Hall, a 41-year-old Trent University graduate in international development studies, says it would be wrong to portray him as "an extreme environmentalist."
"Let's not talk about global warming here," he says. "Let's talk about pollution. A huge amount of garbage is being produced by these things and we're all having to pay to get rid of it. I think that's despicable."
There is another reason, however, that he intends to buck this trend no matter the direction the rest of the world seems determined to go: He thinks the coffee, while far more expensive, is inferior.
"You can't provide a fresh product in that; you can't," he says, holding one of the K-Cups in his hand.
"Once the beans are ground they start losing flavour. And once you hand it to a distribution company, it's completely out of your control."
Equator has a strict 10-day policy. It roasts and packages the beans, delivers them to its client retail outlets, and 10 days later replaces any not sold. The unsold beans are then discounted.
The success of the mass pod producers may not please Mr. Hall but it hardly surprises. "All they're selling," he says, "is convenience," and in particular to office coffee operations where individual cups and a variety of flavours are popular. The cost per cup is high, he says, and the expense of the machine required only adds to the price.
"The cost per cup is way, way higher," Mr. Hall says. "I don't understand why people can't do the math – you could throw out half a pot of coffee and it would still be cheaper than using K-Cups. I have to think they are making a lot more money on this than they ever were on ground coffee or on selling beans you have to grind."
He also claims that coffee sophisticates would shun the end product simply because the water never quite gets hot enough to release the flavour as it should.
"Get a kettle," he says. "And a French press. Very low technology and a great cup of coffee. True aficionados have nothing to do with pods because it's bad coffee."
Mr. Hall acknowledges that turning his back on the trend is high-risk for a small roasting company, but it's one Equator is willing to take.
"I'm just hoping it's a fad that goes away," he says. "We believe you should take a little more time with your coffee. We think it's important. We want to treat coffee like lettuce – not like a can of soup."