It was a casual remark. It changed my thinking. It changed my life.
Last Thanksgiving our family were all seated at the dinner table. Leighton, my very bright teen aged granddaughter, and I both like coffee. We were talking that day about different brands and how we make coffee in the morning.
I said that I had a Keurig coffeemaker that makes one cup. It sits in my studio. Every morning after I’ve had my first up of half and half during breakfast, I go over to my studio to write. I make a second cup there with the Kuerig – industrial strength, seriously caffeinated. Sometimes, when I have a need to become wired, I’ll have second cup.
She began to tell us what she’d learned in school when they studied environmental issues.
They learned that the K-Cups, which have grown so popular by making coffee so simple and convenient to brew – not to mention the easy disposal of the grounds – are not breaking down in landfills. Their numbers are exponentially increasing with no end in sight.
I felt a chill as I listened.
The K-Cup has a peculiar combination of elements; plastic, aluminum, and organic material (coffee grounds). and a paper filter. Separately the elements might break down over time. A complete K-Cup when discarded will not. Leighton told us, “The amount of K-Cups that have been trashed in landfills could wrap around the planet 10 times.”
Convenience may be what’s killing us. So many of the manufactured products that make our lives pleasant and easy, as we’re learning, “do not go gentle into that good night.” They resist decomposition long after we’ve tossed them out, and I’d add, long after we die. They last a million years in some cases. To our credit, human beings are more considerate in that regard. We decay decently and what’s most important, in a timely manner; in most cases, eight to ten years. After we’ve been tossed away we will totally decompose except for bones. They can last hundreds of years. Not to worry; they never pose any environmental degradation and if they are old enough, may tell us a lot about some of the weird habits in which our ancient ancestors indulged.
Leighton’s comment stuck with me; it nagged me, actually. It was making me very uneasy. Nevertheless, every morning I’d still go to my studio, pop a K- Cup into the Keurig and in minutes I’d have a hot cup of coffee. Day after day, I’d continue the routine, but with this difference; I grew increasingly conscious of the small wastepaper basket near where the Keurig unit sits. That’s where I throw the used cups after I’ve made coffee from the Kuerig. But when I’d look down into the basket I’d see a week’s worth of discarded K-Cups. Like the quick and uncontrolled growth of cancer cells, their escalating numbers scared me.
How powerful convenience, familiarity and ease can be in perpetuating our own destructive behavior. Habits can be addictive. How we are saved from these addictions may take a long time.
I had my first experience with this disturbing pattern of addiction when I quit smoking thirty years ago. I’d been smoking since I was twelve and I did, indeed, inhale a half a pack or more of unfiltered camels a day. Like the incident with the Keurig, when I was made aware of how profoundly destructive I was being, it didn’t change my behavior. The seductions of the things that bring comfort and convenience to our lives ‘do not go gentle.”
Long before I finally quit smoking I was serving a parish in New York City. The rector and I both smoked. He liked using cigarette holders, the kind which we’d often seen FDR using. I thought they were neat and began using one. Their filters have to be changed periodically. One day as I took the filter from the holder, the most hideous yellow slime oozed down all over my fingers. I thought “Mother of God, all this slime goes into my lungs?” In the crazy way we deny in order to perpetuate the nutty stuff we do, I stopped – not smoking, mind you, but stopped using the holder. That way I wouldn’t have to look at the pus-like substance entering my lungs with every puff. I continued to smoke.
I quit 24 years later.
I have to say there was no drama in my final quitting. I’d tried many times before. It came to me one day in what I can only describe as a still small voice that whispered in my ear: “I want to live.” I just quit. I have to say that even to this day I still miss it.
My deliverance from the scourge of the K-Cups followed a similar pattern, but it didn’t take as long.
Leighton told me about the environmental dangers of K-Cups last Thanksgiving. For the following eight months, I dodged and ducked the truths my conscience threw at me as I brewed my coffee. That was until just a day ago.
I know this will sound just as crazy as the cigarette business, but I was fully aware when I initially got the Keurig that there was a reusable K-Cup alternative. It’s a small basket that could be hand filled with coffee enough for a cup and be used identically as K-Cups could. This would leave no environmental impact. The down side of course was that it was not convenient; I had to get the coffee, spoon it out into the tiny paper basket in the receptacle, then insert it where I’d normally just pop in the K-Cup.
And so, the other day I had my first cup of seriously caffeinated coffee by a means safer for me and the world but infinitely more inconvenient.
And so, when on the second day I made coffee, again in the Keurig, but this time by the alternative method, I felt elated, freed. When I’d look down to the wastebasket where there had once been piles of K-Cups, I didn’t see one single discarded K-Cup. In the thousand steps I hoped I might take to save the world, I’d made one first step for mankind.
First, something had to make me aware. In this case it was learning what Leighton knew from school. That stuck. It nagged at me for a long time.
Being aware is one thing. I suspect that awareness begins, but is rarely heeded at first because of the inconveniences and discomforts that acting on the awareness may impose.
There are informed people and prominent scientific agencies telling us daily that environmental degradations are now blatantly obvious and have reached crisis proportions both on the land, sea and in the air. Action is desperately needed.
I believe we are at that stage today with this issue as I was when I first noticed how my cigarette holder’s filter was full of yellow slime and my wastebasket was always filled with discarded K-Cups. It repulsed me, but not enough to act.
I pray we will take the evidence, heed the sane voices sooner. It’s really a matter of life and death.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.