Guatemala Part II: Getting to Tikal


On my first full day in Guatemala I woke up pretty early and killed some time by reading. At about 0700 I head out to get some cash. That wasn’t too tough; I used an ATM at a convenience store. It was weird today to feel out when the world woke up. When I went out at 0700 the hotel’s restaurant wasn’t open, nor were most of the shops. There was a dude eating breakfast at the convenience store but that seemed to be about it. On the other hand, I saw tons of people loading up onto busses to head out to wherever they were going. In retrospect I should have tried to finangle my way onto one of those but eh. I went back to the hotel for breakfast. I was trying to avoid being in a hurry and take things slow. I had a lovely breakfast and then went to go try to speak with the hotel manager about getting to Tikal. The place had a travel booking office thing, and I busted out all my Spanish to try to arrange things. I walked away thinking that he was going to call me a tuk-tuk for 1000 to take me to the bus station for Tikal. I thought that was a bit late (this left me with like 1.5 hours to kill), but again I was trying to not be in a hurry and figured that he knew best. So at 1000 I went downstairs and he informed me that the tuk-tuks were the next street over. I was on my own. Oh well. I flagged down a tuk-tuk and he took me to the bus station, where a dude directed me to a shuttle for Tikal. I was disappointed to learn the bus didn’t leave until 1200 but bought a ticket anyways and waited in the bus station. At 1200 we loaded up onto the bus and it was just me and this other guy. Or so I thought. The bus (shuttle) then drove around picking up other people until the bus was full. We spent some time back on Flores and so the whole thing felt rather silly. Rookie mistakes man. The bus got going at about 1230 after stopping for gas. I took a bunch of notes. I was hoping to catch some glimpses of some farms, and kept my eye out the window the whole time because this was my first chance to really look around Guatemala. The rest of the shuttle was also tourists of course. I should talk to more of these people. The rest of the world feels so much better travelled but I never know what to think of them. Mostly what puts me off is that they wear shorts.

My first note was “multiple chihuahuas,” having noticed one going for a walk when I was getting cash and then seeing several around as we were picking up people. Then, “a horse.” I saw a number of horses along the way. Those were notable because the entire time I was comparing the place to Zambia. Guatemala along this stretch actually looked a lot like Zambia I thought. A lot of the trees appeared the same to my eye, and you had the same wooden stakes with wire fences going around. The road was much nicer though, and of course there were the horses. I didn’t see any goats, which is also un-Zambia-like, but I did see some pigs. The forest was interesting. A lot of it was low sorta scrubland it seemed to me, but then also large chunks of larger forest. One stretch looked planted (trees in rows), but I couldn’t tell if they were actually growing anything like, commercially. It kinda looked like the spice plantation we saw in Zanzibar. I also saw a number of cows (not too many, but much of the land looked like it was cattle-grazing territory), and I saw some structures for livestock (like those dip bath things and loading bays). There were mango trees and I think cassia. There were also a large number of palms, which looked too small to be palm oil palms, but that is because, as I later deduced, they were coconut palms (based on the coconuts people were selling by the roadside). The other fun thing I saw was a home-made merry-go-round, where the seats were like, former toy bikes and cars. Very neat.

Eventually we arrived at Tikal. They sell all the tickets and stuff at the gate, which is about 20 minutes from the actual Tikal site, so we had to offload and buy tickets. That was nothing too crazy and it was off to the site. After the gate though the site pretty quickly transitions into jungle, so all the low scrubland is like, clearly man-made. I reflected that if you were trying to imagine Tikal as the Mayans would have experienced it, which is what I like to do, that means the low scrubland was probably more likely to have surrounded ancient Tikal rather than dense jungle. I also noticed the road, because it was super nice. I think I read Guatemala wanted to increase tourism, and so built a nice road. Imagine that! I wonder what the ROI is? Probably great. I also noticed that the road masks a lot of topography. It cuts through hills and is on ledges so the approach to the city is probably more difficult than it seems.

We finally arrived at the site and offloaded the bus. Most of my busmates went on their day tour, and I went off to check into the redundantly named Hotel Tikal Inn. They gave me some juice upon arrival so I was enamored right away. I checked in and dropped off my bags and turned around to find some lunch (it was like 1500). Then I had to decide what to do. I wasn’t sure I wanted to blow a ticket walking into the park, but I had read in the guidebook that if you enter after 3 the ticket is good for the next day. Still. I went over o the visitor’s center to poke around there first before going in. It’s not much of a center, mostly a place for little souvenir shops. They also have a diagram of the site and a museum. I poked my head into the museum, but it didn’t look too interesting (and I wasn’t sure I had a ticket for it). I wandered through the shops, and just sorta wound up going through the site entrance.


My first glimpse of a temple in Tikal.

I decided to take an immediate left over to where the map said there was Temple VI. I could have gone straight to the main plaza, but I like to attack these sorts of things from the periphery. Plus there were no people coming from the direction of Temple VI, so I liked the look of it. I was alone for most of my time on the site that first day. It was quiet on the way there except for a lot of bird sounds. There is so much wildlife. I eventually came to Temple VI. It was hard to discern at first, because it looks like a hill, but it’s a temple. I wandered around and took a bunch of pictures. There is a small path away from the front of it that leads to a half-buried stela or whatever it is called, and on the way there there were a whole bunch of those angry army ants or whatever and I had to make sure to avoid them. It felt like they were protecting the place. Temple VI is known as the Temple of Scriptures or something because there is a whole bunch of stuff written on the back, though of course I don’t read Mayan.

At this point I was actually kinda nervous because technically the park closes at 1600 but it seems okay to stay past that, but then again it gets dark at 1730. So I didn’t know if I should head back or not and so I went to the I think “Temple of the Stripes,” which apparently is some residential place. That was cool, lots of nooks and crannies and stuff. Took a self-timer photo or two.


As I was walking back a whole tribe or whatever of the racoon-looking things came across the path, scurrying around and stuff. They weren’t afraid of me at all. That was neat. I also saw some monkeys high up in the trees and a woodpecker pecking away, and back at the hotel some vultures and a tiny shrew looking thing. As I was eating dinner, which was pretty wonderful, the waiter suddenly said “sir, don’t be afraid, but get up and walk to your left.” I was sitting by the door and I look down and there is a small snake there. Apparently, it is very poisonous though. They batted it outside with a broom and I think killed it. So that was exciting. On the way back to the room I spotted an owl so that was cool. But on the other hand the guy showing me the room had mentioned that there are jaguars around so it seemed perilous to make the long walk back to my room, which was in a secluded building.

After my first day in Tikal I reflected that it was going to be really hard to get a solid sense of it all. I think there is a modern-day vision of Mayan cities being immersed within a jungle, but that probably isn’t true I think. The jungle would have been chopped down for a long way around to make room for houses and all the other parts of a city. With the jungle covering it, however, it is hard to really get a vision of how the whole place would have been laid out, people and all. Surely at its peak it would have been surrounded by massive suburbs of wattle & daub houses or something similar. I wondered how the Mayan positioned themselves among all the hills and stuff. Easy to imagine the site now as a bunch of isolated temples but how did it look and feel as a living, breathing city? I guess LIDAR is giving us a peak into that. That jungle is pretty intense.

Guatemala Part I: Getting There


Reading this week:

  • Range by David Epstein

Buckle up people – I’m going to milk this Guatemala trip for all it’s worth.

So over Christmas break I went to Guatemala. I mostly went because I was jealous of other people doing cool stuff. I’m in the Global Affairs program and because the affairs we care about are global, you get people who just casually go to Jordan or Vietnam or Portugal and stuff. So I wanted to go somewhere, and I figured I should practice my Spanish, and I have already technically been to Mexico, and Guatemala is the next closest place. I also have not ever traveled to Central/South America, except for a spring break in Cancun and a trip to Manaus, and I figured I should get some exposure to the region. I was very interested in how a place like Guatemala contrasted to Zambia or the other African countries I had been to. And then finally, ancient stone cities are like my jam, dawg, and Guatemala fortunately has quite a number of Mayan ruins.

So off I went to Guatemala. My mom dropped me off at the airport at 0400 and at 0600 I was on a flight to Texas and from there Guatemala City. I was hoping to find a Spanish phrasebook in one of the airport bookstores but no luck. The flight was fine. We landed a tad after noon and I got off the plane. As I walked to customs I kept asking why I had done this to myself. I was nervous about being in Guatemala and totally alone and not quite sure what I was doing. After customs, I changed money and bought a sim card at the convenient if overpriced stands in the airport, and then exited the airport and was like hrm. My original plan had been to take the overnight bus to Flores, but I had wussed out and decided to fly instead. So I needed to find the departure gate, and that was tougher than it sounded. I had found the departure entrance, but it looked like an exit, and so there I was wandering around with a bright orange shirt and a salmon colored backpack looking confused. Luckily, they had a cafe across the street so I ducked in there because I needed some lunch anyways. I got to sit down finally and eat some food and I observed the departures gate and concluded it really was departures. I sat around reading for a while and then went in at the appropriate time and then hung out in the departure gate. We eventually boarded the very tiny plane and took off just a few minutes before the sun went down. It was a fairly pretty ride, though clouds covered most of the way so I couldn’t get a really good look at the landscape. But I met some nice Canadian ladies.


The most jarring thing about landing in Santa Elena was that there was a huge McDonald’s sign visible from the runway. And right before the causeway to Flores there is a Burger King. I came all the way from the United States only to find this. In Zambia you don’t run into this stuff so it feels more exotic. Guatemala seems much more developed. But I got off the plane and found a taxi, and the driver found some other people to split it with me. They were either French or Quebecois. I almost forgot to pay the taxi driver but he got me to “Hotel La Mesa de los Mayas,” which I picked out of a guidebook. I asked if they had a cheaper room than the Q150 one he offered, so the proprietor gave it to me for Q125. I took a shower and then head out to finally see some of Guatemala.

The island of Flores was jarring when we first crossed the causeway because I could see a lot of what seemed like tourists but now I think they might be Guatemalan. Still maybe tourists. So I didn’t really know if I was comfortable with the whole place. But the island isn’t large and I went for a stroll around the whole thing, stopping for dinner. Literally all around the island were couples enjoying the night air and each other’s company and I thought it was very very cute. My Spanish was really terrible. However, the place I picked for dinner had a nice view across the lake and it was good food and everything was great. As I was sitting there, I was very happy to be in the tropics but it felt like it would be a while before I really understood the vibe of the place. After dinner and back at the hotel, I pondered before I fell asleep what the Mayans that originally inhabited Flores would think about it these days. Would they be into commerce and trade? Would they like the food?

The Draft

Reading this week:

  • 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
  • How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything by Rosa Brooks

We’re no longer in the “stretch” portion of content, technically, because I am back from my trip, but I guess the internet was worried about World War III after the strike against Soleimani. This, as we are all aware, apparently lead large swaths of the American Youth to be afraid they were about to be drafted (NYT). In a later article about a fraud centered around the draft, the New York Times also characterized text messages saying people were going to be drafted as “scary” (NYT).

I have a great many complex feelings about this. I’m not sure I can characterize them fully here, but I’ll give it a go. First off, the draft in its most recent iterations is terrible. It is classist, and in America that therefore means it is racist. Theoretically any man of the right age can be called on to join the military, but there are exceptions. There were deferments for college, or if your job was vital to the war effort. The sorts of people going to college or who have jobs vital to the war effort are going to be from a certain social class. And if you can’t get deferments for college or your job, if you have enough money and know the right people you can always find a doctor to give you a diagnosis of bone spurs. So the draft was never as egalitarian as it should have been. The military doesn’t even particularly like the draft; it is way easier to manage an all-volunteer force, because everyone there theoretically wants to be there, as opposed to a force full of people who were, uh, drafted into it.

But what rankles me is that people are afraid of it. That, like I said, the NYT characterizes the draft as “scary.” What, exactly, is so scary about serving your country?

I am going to put aside the conscientious objectors, because those people aren’t necessarily afraid to be drafted. I also understand on a lot of levels why the draft would be scary. Anything strange and foreign is scary. I understand the people that are in no position to be drafted, because they need to support their families or other reasons. But these 18 year olds? These college students? What’s their excuse?

If the fear is that you will be drafted and then go on to be killed or seriously injured, I understand that as a specific fear, but what is the alternative? If you don’t go, then someone else will have to. Increasingly, the military is part of a caste system – it is the children of military that go on to serve in the military (NYT again, these warnings are for the paywall). That was the case for me. I’m 3rd gen military, on both sides (my grandparents were both in WWII, so maybe that’s not so special). My parents never pushed me into the military but at age 18 or so I suddenly woke up and pure instinct pushed me to go to the Naval Academy.

The big advantage of the draft, that although it is in-egalitarian, is it did do something to spread out who participated in the military. It also spread out the burden. When the draft was around, wars meant that your kid might be called up. Without the draft, wars can be fought by other people, those anonymous “boots” that always wind up “on the ground.”

Personally I think joining the military is about the best thing you can possible do at age 18, and, failing that, at about age 22 right out of college. Serve four or five years, and then go on to do whatever you’re were originally going to do. It gives you discipline, it gives you life skills, and at the very least it gives you a paycheck while you get a little bit older and wiser. People are idiots at 18, so join the military and when you get out at 22 or 23 you won’t be quite as dumb and can go to college as a not-dumb-kid.

Here’s what I am trying to get at. I’m not sure if I support a draft or not; I see a lot of pros and cons either way. If we just re-up the last draft law, probably not, because as I said before it is racist. And I don’t think some sort of universal service would work for the United States the way it does for Singapore or Israel, because we’re just too big. But at my grumpy old age of 31, it upsets me that young people should be so afraid of the draft. Sign up. Serve. See the system from the inside. Learn who the people are that fight the nation’s wars.

Myakka River State Park


Reading this week:

  • The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

We are, as noted, in the “stretch” portion of content. That means a whole post on Myakka River State Park! It is a pretty nice little state park. It was created when the Civilian Conservation Corps did their usual thing and found a river and dammed it up. They cleared, we were told, about 1000 acres of forest to do this. They also didn’t quite dam it up, they in fact built a weir. Over the years I guess silt has kinda dammed up the place anyways, because the weir is no longer in use except by a bevy of alligators that like to hang out next to it. Why was the CCC so enthusiastic about damming up rivers? I can barely remember the last time I saw a lake that wasn’t made by the CCC. Someone in the CCC must have been related to a beaver.


One of the more exciting things you can do on the lake is take a boat tour. We’ve been going to this place for years, but haven’t been in a while. The last time I was here they had these sweet air boats that claimed to be the world’s largest, but now they have just regular boat-boats. I guess they’re slightly modified; on the back are what looks like outboard motors but those have in fact been retrofitted with jet-ski like jet drive things. The boat tour is pretty nice. It is nothing crazy, they just take you out to where they have seen wildlife lately (today it was across the lake) and then you uh, look at said wildlife. We saw a whole lot of alligators. They for serious have a whole bunch there. Like tons. We also saw some birds. I was slightly disappointed because Captain Ted there told us that a week before some people saw a Florida panther and so I was scanning the shoreline the whole time but with no luck.


…yaas queen.

After the boat tour we wandered around a bit more. I got a pretty good shot of a Blue Heron (see below) and at some point we also had lunch. They offer various alligator dishes (I had a chicken ceaser wrap) but come to think of it they never told us where the alligator meat came from.


The final thing we did at the park was walk a bit of a ways down a nature trail. There was tons of nature, and here again I was looking for a panther and was again disappointed, though considering now I was on foot instead of on a boat perhaps I should not have been. I did, however, see yet another alligator:


Dalí Museum


Peacock chillin’ at the Jungle Prada site.

Reading this week:

  • Dereliction of Duty by H.R. McMaster
  • The Sex Factor: How Women Made the West Rich by Victoria Bateman
  • It’s Our Turn to Eat by Michela Wrong
  • Moonraker by Ian Fleming

We have a couple of factors at play here. The most important one is that I am going on a vacation soon and need to squeeze out a few weeks of content to hold me over until I can bring all of my zero readers fantastic pictures of my travels. So now I shall write about a lovely morning I had after taking some aunt and uncle to the airport. On the way to the airport we passed the Dalí Museum, and they suggested I go. I originally heard “Dolly Museum,” and I was confused, but forged ahead nonetheless.


But first! I went to go see the Jungle Prada Site. I went to go see it because I like to tally up places that I have been on Atlas Obscura, and also I had to kill like an hour before the museum opened. The flight was early. As you can read on the sign in the picture above, the Prada site is the landing spot of Panfilo de Narvaez, who I guess has claim to launching the first exploration by white man of the North American continent. He did this, in conquistador fashion, by immediately ransacking the village where he landed (inhabited by the Tocobaga) and then setting off in search of gold. Along the way he mutilated the chief of the Tocobaga, killed the chief’s mother and fed her to his dogs, and tried to kill the neighboring Apalachee tribe, before being killed by the Apalachee and having only four of his men escape on rafts to Mexico. Other than that it is a very lovely spot.


I tried to be artsy in the framing of this photo.

The museum is not huge and frankly I spent more than I anticipated. Parking was $10 and admission for military (they didn’t specify if it was veteran or not so I got it) was $23 and then (this is more my own fault) I spent like $20 in the gift shop. But it was pretty great! The site is gorgeous, as you can see in the photo above. You enter the museum and then have to go up to the third floor to see the galleries. They do this because they are worried about flooding. The previous museum was on the first floor of a warehouse which, in Florida, makes it in a flood zone, so now they have truly elevated the artform.

They have two main exhibits, which are a large main gallery with Dalí’s works, and then another gallery which I think rotates. At this time it was an exhibit of French surrealists, which included some works by Dalí. I got to the museum at 10:00 and it was fairly empty for a bit though by the time I left an hour later it had filled up considerably. I guess people want to go out and see things the day after Christmas (when I went). The main gallery is arranged chronologically. I walked through backwards, so I saw his later stuff first. I liked it better than his earlier work, and I bet I am not unique in that. My favorite was “El torero alucinógeno.” It is one of his masterworks (or at least it is very big) and has all sorts of symbolism and meaning I guess. I bought a print in the gift shop. Mostly I liked the colors.


Sorry it’s a crap picture.


A detail from the picture.

I might have to reassess my art museum strategy. In the past I was very happy to go alone and just judge the art for myself. But now it all feels a little silly to see it without context. And I tried but I was too impatient to walk through with the tour guide today. I gotta get more art friends and then hopefully they’ll either tolerate me dragging them to art museums and asking for explanations and/or they’ll be nice enough to invite me along when they go. But the museum was very nice and it was remarkable to see the craftsmanship of these things up close. I don’t know if you know this but Dalí was like, a really good painter. If you’re in town I recommend it. But go with a crowd to have some company and then also to spread out the cost of parking. And if you absolutely hate the art it’s still Florida outside and that is pretty gorgeous in and of itself:


DC Friends


Reading this week:

  • Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Before we talk about anything else, let’s note the top picture. It’s a Congolese nkondi, which, when I took the picture, could be found for sale in an otherwise very lovely bookstore in downtown Annapolis that I frequent whenever I’m in town. If you had something like $1500, it could be yours, presumably to display in the corner of your living room or something so you could go “look, it’s a Congolese nkondi. It’s witchcraft!” Whenever I see something like this, I have to wonder how it wound up in some Maryland storefront. What are the chances every person in the chain between here and the Congo thought they were getting the better end of the bargain? The store is about 500 feet from a memorial to Alex Haley and Kunte Kinte, who was delivered, enslaved, to the Annapolis docks. The cultural context of the nkondi has been reduced to whatever the storeowner could Google and stick on an index card next to a price. Maybe it was all on the up-and-up going all the way back to when the thing was hopefully made as an export piece for the tourist market, but does the person selling it and the person that is going to buy it have any clue?


Anyways, that’s not what this post is about. This post is about friends! With finals over, for the week before Christmas I went to go stay with my parents down in Maryland. Maryland is conveniently very close to DC, which is, conveniently, where a good chunk of my Peace Corps friends have moved to. So, since I am trying this hip new thing of actively maintaining friendships, I visited as many as I could while I could. It was great! It is extremely lovely to have friends, and they are all settling down to a variety of exciting things. They are working for the EPA and the Peace Corps and the FDA and all sorts of cool places! My major mission while visiting all of them was to get in with the DC happy hour scene I hear about so that I will then have friends who are in with the DC happy hour scene. This, I am told, is useful.

Importantly for the context of this post I also have a friend who is working at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (I write this blog partially just to stay in the habit of writing, but now I find when I write essays I write them like they’re blog posts, ie I will just mention something without any context, imagining that I will just add a hyperlink; this is probably not a great thing?), which is co-located with the National Portrait Gallery. The National Portrait Gallery is full of portraits, so when I was waiting around for her to get off work so we could get dinner I went to go look at some portraits. I was happy to see ole’ 2-6 Teddy Roosevelt, and while there you also have to of course check out Barack Obama. Then finally it was on to my absolute favorite admiral, the inestimable Chester Nimitz. Related, I am currently reading Invisible Women, and now that I am writing this blog post I feel terrible. Anyways.



What is he possibly looking at with those binoculars when he would also be wearing this outfit, with his hands in his pockets? Goddmanit I love you Chester Nimitz.

My other friend (man I have so many DC friends) also wanted to take a picture of the National Christmas Tree to send to her mom. So after dinner we wandered on down there to take a look. It was pretty neat! They don’t actually decorate the tree so much as design a whole different tree out of lights and then put the light-tree around the real-tree, but there ya go. They also had model trains running around, at which people from all over the world have apparently thrown coins (the around-the-world-ness evident from the variety of coins). And then they had around the big tree in the middle a whole set of smaller trees, arranged as though it was some sort of tree-cult ritual scene. The smaller trees were decorated from representatives from the 50 US states and then also, encouragingly, each of the US territories. 99% of the time, you’re totally forgotten, US Virgin Islands, but not at Christmas time! I was going to be resolutely unimpressed with the mini-trees, until we came across the Maryland one and it had an Old Bay ornament, so then it was worth it.



Keurigs & Environmentalism

Until this week, at my program at Yale they provided us with disposable K-Cups to make coffee. A certain crowd agitated, and without warning they decided to stop providing disposable K-Cups. Instead they had roast coffee grounds, the reusable K-Cups, and pour-over coffee makers, with discussions ongoing about getting a regular coffee maker. I am perpetually grumpy and anti-authority, and was upset about this change. I’ve put my analysis below, but as far as I can tell disposable K-Cups are the most efficient method of producing coffee man has ever created. It’s stunning. They are so miserly with coffee, and coffee is such an energy-intensive crop (especially when you consider coffee being drunk in New England with the transportation energy included) that the extra roast coffee grounds required to make coffee for literally any other method (including, importantly, reusable K-Cups) more than offsets the carbon cost of the plastic in K-Cups.

This is an important point when it comes to environmentalism. You have to consider the whole picture. Single-use plastics are bad but they don’t exist in a vacuum; if they are replacing something else, what is the alternative? By switching from disposable K-Cups to another coffee brewing method, we’ve eliminated bright white plastic from sitting in our garbage can, but we’ve replaced it with an even greater amount of carbon dioxide we just release into the atmosphere. That carbon dioxide is easy to ignore though, because it is invisible and happens far away from us (or at least a bit down the road). People don’t have a good grasp on the fact that an electric kettle is a 3kW device that sucks down just gobs of power, and that’s because they don’t have a good grasp on how many of the systems we just take for granted in the Western world actually work.

To make a vaguely related point, this is why I get upset when people talk about nuclear waste. Nuclear waste is bad, I agree, but it is better than CO2. Dealing with nuclear waste is a relatively easy technical problem; you just bundle it up and stick it in a hole. It’s easy to transport and it just sits there. But people can see it, and have to do the actual transporting. It’s easier to be in favor a natural gas power plant in your backyard because the only waste that thing generates is invisible gasses that just float away.

The takeaway here is not that K-Cups are good for the environment. Turns out coffee is bad for the environment. But if you’re going to drink coffee (and participate in all the other terrible, environmentally unfriendly aspects of a modern Western lifestyle), then it seems that disposable K-Cups are literally the least bad way to do it.

My Analysis of the Carbon Footprint of K-Cups:

Disposable K-Cups: Each K-Cup is made of 4g plastic and 10g roast coffee (numbers range from 3-4g of plastic, and 5-11g of coffee).

Reusable K-Cup: Instructions call for using 2tbsp of coffee, which is 16g.

Carbon Footprint of Plastic: The “recyclable” K-cups (the latest ones) use polypropylene (PP). According to EPA estimates, each short ton of PP produced results in 3.02 metric tons of CO2 production, which is equivalent to 3.33g of CO2 production for 1g of PP produced.

Carbon Footprint of Coffee: Estimates here are hard to get. The most complete study was for coffee produced in Costa Rica and consumed in Europe. If you subtract consumption (brewing the cup, producing the filter), they estimate 2.83kg of CO2 for every 1kg of green coffee. For every 16oz of green coffee you generally produce 12oz of roast coffee, so you produce 3.77g of CO2 for 1g of roast coffee grounds. That is on the low end of estimates; other sources I found say 5.5g to 11g of CO2 for every 1g of roast coffee. Estimates for the carbon footprint of coffee are always going to be all over the place because it will depend on where they come from (our local roaster sources coffees from as close as Mexico and as far away as Sumatra) both due to transportation costs and production methods. The coffee plantation I lived next to had center-pivot irrigation and that had to consume tons of energy. The sources cited before also note the huge impact fertilizer use has on carbon footprint.

Carbon Footprint, Disposable vs. Reusable K-Cup: A Disposable K-Cup has a carbon footprint of 55.0g CO2 (13.3g from the plastic, 4g of plastic, 37.7g from coffee). The Reusable K-Cup has a carbon footprint of 60.3g CO2 (all from the coffee). So net, a Disposable K-Cup has a lower carbon footprint than a reusable K-cup. This is a low-end estimate; the difference gets much worse for Reusable K-Cups if we use the higher coffee carbon footprint from the other sources. Coffee is such an energy intensive crop and Disposable K-Cups are such an efficient coffee brewing system that the additional plastic in a disposable K-Cup is more than offset by the additional coffee in a reusable K-Cup. You even throw away less trash; the Disposable K-Cup weighs a total of 14g, but the Reusable K-Cup uses 16g of coffee, which also just gets thrown away (we don’t have a compost bin or anything). The major assumption in this is that the transport and packaging costs of K-Cups and roasted coffee is the same. I think this is a safe assumption because the K-Cup manufacturers have economies of scale, and when the K-Cups are delivered it is via very efficient delivery systems. The smaller scale of operations of the local roaster we get our coffee from likely means they are less efficient in their roasting and packaging operations and in their delivery systems. K-Cups are so efficient that Bloomberg credited the rise in K-Cup use over traditional coffee pots for a downturn in worldwide coffee demand. I also did not include the energy estimates for brewing the cup of coffee because I assume this is the same for disposable and reusable K-Cups, but this is significant for other brewing systems.

Waste in Other Brewing Methods: It takes a large amount of energy to heat water. At Yale, the electricity comes from the Central Power Plant (CPP), which uses natural gas and has a 20% thermal efficiency (20% of the thermal energy at the power plant is converted to electrical energy, which is per the tour I took at the beginning of the semester and is normal for turbine systems). 12oz of water weigh 0.78lbs, 1 BTU is the energy required to raise 1lbs of water by 1°F, and 53.07 kg CO2 is produced for every 1 million BTUs from natural gas. Thus, heating the water for one cup of coffee produces 29.4g CO2, which is equivalent to the plastic in just under two disposable K-Cups:

(212-70°F)*0.78lbs*(1BTU/°F-lbs)*(53.07kgCO2/1,000,000 BTU)*(1000g/1kg)/20% = 29.4g CO2

The takeaway from this analysis is that a major inefficiency in other types of brewing systems is wasted energy from heating extra water. If you make pour-over coffee using the kettle, every 2.4 extra teaspoons of water heated to boiling results in 1g of CO2 released into the atmosphere. If we get a coffee pot with a burner to keep the coffee warm, that would likely be the most significant energy loss in the whole system. If we get an airpot brewing system or even a traditional Mr. Coffee, then every cup of coffee left over at the end of the day or thrown away because it is cold or stale is two K-Cups worth of CO2 emissions wasted.

That also doesn’t count the roasted coffee used. Every other method calls for using more coffee than the K-Cup contains. Instructions for Century Series Air Pot Brewers call for 2.5oz of roasted coffee to produce 2.2L of coffee, which comes out to 11.43g per 12oz cup. If we produced coffee in accordance with the instructions, and drank every single cup, that is more efficient than a Disposable K-Cup. But between the coffee and the power, every wasted 12oz cup has a carbon footprint of 72.4 g CO2 (43g from coffee, 29.4g from heating water), or the equivalent to the plastic in 4.2 disposable K-Cups (that is also under ideal conditions; the calculation for heating water above doesn’t account for any losses). 11.43g of roasted coffee is also on the low end, as this source recommends 21.26g of roasted coffee per 12oz cup, which appears to align with a common suggestion of 20g per 12oz cup for other methods. One of the biggest efficiencies from K-Cups is that they result in no wasted cups of coffee at the end of the day; people don’t have to brew a whole pot of coffee to drink just one cup.

Conclusion: Coffee is energy-intensive no matter how you choose to go about making it. But because the Disposable K-Cup is such a resource-efficient method of brewing coffee, it is the least bad method. By eliminating Disposable K-Cups, we’ve eliminated that plastic from landfills but traded it for a larger mass of CO2 released into the atmosphere, where it is a much tougher problem to deal with. Plastic is unsightly but once you dump it in a landfill it tends to actually stay there. It is easier to pretend that the CO2 isn’t a problem, but that’s only because we can’t see it.

Appendix 1: Creamers

Dairy milk produces 1467g of CO2 per liter of milk. Almond milk produces 396g of CO2 per liter. A standard creamer packet contains 11mL of liquid. If you assume people put 22mL (two creamer packets) of milk into their coffee (for those that do), that is 32.3g of CO2 per cup of coffee for dairy milk and 8.7g of CO2 per cup of coffee for almond milk. Each creamer packet worth of dairy milk is just shy of 1 disposable K-Cup worth of plastic in terms of CO2 emissions.