Invasion of the Pod People

How our throw-away culture is reaching new heights

The epitome of our desire for convenience--individual pods of coffee that are adding millions of pounds of waste to our landfills annually.
The epitome of our desire for convenience–individual pods of coffee that are adding millions of pounds of waste to our landfills annually.

“Ours is a culture and a time immensely rich in trash as it is in treasures.”
― Ray BradburyZen in the Art of Writing

We live in a society of paradoxes and (often bitter) ironies. A schizophrenic society, you might call it. We are torn between the desire for ever greater convenience, and the knowledge that convenience often comes at a price—either a literal increase in cost, or at the expense of our own health and the health of our planet.

Similarly, at a time when we have more understanding than ever before about the impact that our way of life is having on the earth, we are also inundated with an unprecedented amount of irresponsible lifestyle choices and toxic products that seem “impossible” to live without. I mean, how often do you rinse your kitchen counter with vinegar or lemon juice? It’s just as effective as the chemical-laden Lysol you buy at the store, but well targeted marketing has indoctrinated us not to trust the simplest, and typically healthiest, options. Vinegar? How uncouth. Lemons? Barbaric. Even considering the recent hipster nod to do-it-yourself-ness, store-bought, pre-packaged, and over-priced is still the irrefutable norm.

A pod a day—or three

Take your daily cup of joe, for example. Do you buy your (ahem) organic fair-trade coffee in bulk and use a reusable filter or better yet a French press to get your fix? Or have you joined the coffee pod craze popularized here in America by the likes of Keurig and Nespresso? If it’s the latter, you are in good company—over a third of Americans use one of these contraptions. Don’t worry, I won’t judge. While I don’t own one of these magical pod-consuming devices, I have definitely used them before and marveled at the ease and speed in which I was provided with a steaming, fragrant cup of flavored coffee.

Unfortunately, these tiny cups of convenient caffeine goodness are adding millions of pounds of non-recyclable trash to our landfills every year—and that number keeps growing. As a recent article in the East Bay Express surmises, “Single-cup systems offer a near-irresistible trifecta: convenience, consistency, and variety.”

The amazing thing is that people are willing to pay obscene prices for these single-serve portions of coffee—roughly 3-5 times as much as buying coffee by the pound! Make fun of Starbucks lattes all you want, but if you become a ‘pod person’, you are throwing away just as much money, if not more, on coffee (upwards of $50 per pound!), which of course is exactly what these companies designed the pod systems for. Coffee Big Wigs 1, Humanity 0.

The worst part, of course, is how this pod craze is only the latest addition (after attempts such as pre-peeled plastic wrapped bananas) to our throw-away society, mocking our impeccable ability to look the other way and assuage ourselves of guilt despite being part of the problem. Some of us attempt to absolve ourselves by tossing that plastic or aluminum pod in the recycling bin. Problem is, the small size of the pod means it usually gets passed up by recycling plants and ends up in the landfills anyway. Add to that the fact that the plastic pods can leach toxins into your hot cuppa, and it doesn’t seem like such a great purchase, does it? But…..its still just so convenient! It’s hard to fight our desire for instant gratification. Sure, maybe the pre-wrapped bananas was a marketing failure. But there are definitely a lot more willing consumers of convenient single-serve coffee.

Add it to the pile

Adding to our mounting trash problem is the recent decision by the Chinese government to stop accepting shiploads of unsorted recyclable plastic (among other types of trash) from other countries. The U.S., not wanting to invest in better recycling facilities, has in recent decades found that it is cheaper for us to ship our recyclables across the ocean to be processed and turned into other goods, many of which are then shipped back to us at high mark-up. Just picture the carbon footprint expended by shipping all that plastic back and forth across the globe, let alone the amount o fossil fuels needed to actually clean and process it!

Perhaps worse still is what happened to most of that  ‘recyclable’ plastic when it made it to China. A large portion of the random assortment of unsorted, un-rinsed plastics (and whatever else was mixed in), the portion that wasn’t ultimately practical to recycle, ended up in trash piles adjacent to cities and villages. Eventually these trash piles became too big of problems for the government to ignore, and instead of investing in better sorting facilities, they decided to ban the import of unsorted trash and recyclables from foreign countries.

So, unless we quickly invest in recycling technology to improve our totally inadequate infrastructure in the U.S., we are likely going to see a huge increase in the waste stream; i.e. of otherwise recyclable materials heading straight to the landfill. We thought we could export a massive problem, but ultimately it has returned to our own back yard. Who woulda thought? Insert head shaking and forehead slapping here.

One person’s trash…is another person’s tax dollar

If the fact that plastic trash and toxic chemicals get washed straight from our streets to the ocean–killing animals, plants, and even make people sick in the process–doesn’t tug at your conscious, it should at least make you take a second look at your paycheck. It turns out that California spends upwards of half a billion dollars each year trying to keep the streets clear of litter to protect the ecosystems we rely on for resources and economic stability.

Trash accumulating on a beach in Santa Monica. Urban runoff, including plastics, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals, end up on our beaches and in our oceans, and cost California millions of dollars annually.
Trash accumulating on a beach in Santa Monica. Urban runoff, including plastics, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals, end up on our beaches and in our oceans, and cost California millions of dollars annually.

Urban runoff, composed of plastics, heavy metals, and other harmful materials, has been negatively impacting beach quality, fisheries, kelp habitats, and other vital ecosystems that play a huge role in the California economy. As a result, cities have been spending millions of dollars each per year to try to reduce the amount of contaminated runoff making it to the ocean. There is no cost effective, logistically straightforward way of doing this—especially if citizens are unwilling to accept tax increases to help clean up storm water, as L.A. is experiencing. Yet to not address the problem would mean to let our coastline become degraded beyond repair.

Dollars versus Sense

So we end up paying for the trash one way or another, whether through taxes to clean it up, or the economic loss from damaged natural resources, or in the additional health bills from the chemicals we end up ingesting or breathing in down the line. Unfortunately, the latter two of these consequences are the ones with the least visible costs initially, creating the constant conundrum we continue to find ourselves in.

Perhaps our way of dealing with trash won’t improve until we are literally knee-deep in it, just as China has been, when we can no longer pretend the problem doesn’t exist. As the book ‘Garbology’ (a good read into society’s denial of our damaging consumer ways) points out, we are all hoarders. It’s just that most of us ‘hoard’ are millions of pounds of junk in landfills—out of sight, out of mind—rather than keeping it with us in our homes. We consider hoarders as psychologically disturbed individuals who can’t part with trash, but we rarely recognize that the amount of trash kept in these people’s homes is the same amount each of us creates; we just toss it out without thinking, because we are ‘normal’.

Until our ideas of ‘normalcy’ shift away from a consumer-driven, product orientated, materially obsessed vision of a functioning society, our trash problem is likely going to keep growing and evolving. There are definitely people out there with innovative solutions to these problems, with alternatives to the current unsatisfying ‘norm’. The question is, what alternatives will we choose?

No dumping