Sustainable engineering – helping the environment, one K-Cup at a time

Picture this – you're a struggling young design engineer with a couple of hot ideas up your sleeve. One evening, you're out for a stroll on the beach when you bump right into Paul Comey, Vice President of Environmental Affairs for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.  Excited by this lucky turn of events, you tell him about your concept for machine that disassembles K-Cup coffee containers for easy recycling. Not only does he love the idea, but he wants you to present a prototype at the next company board meeting.
Only trouble is, that's just five short days away.

Your missions is to design and build a working prototype before your swiftly approaching deadline arrives, armed only with your wits and a junk drawer filled with spare parts. Gritting your teeth and rolling up your sleeves, you pull up a chair and get to work.
That was the scenario handed down to a group of high school students at this summer's Engineering Institute at the Governor's Institutes of Vermont. A total of 97 in-state, out-of-state, and international high school students gathered at UVM  from June 27 through July 4 to discuss engineering solutions to social problems and to compete in a variety of engineering projects. One of these projects – dubbed “The Apollo 13 Challenge,” in honor of the engineers  who saved the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts by improvising an air-purifying canister out of available materials – tasked students with designing and constructing a complex device entirely out of odds and ends.

Associate Professor Michael Rosen, who first created the Apollo 13 Challenge for his Senior Design students in 2006, said that he was interested in a hands-on project built around a distinct need or goal.  “That forces the students to go through a creative process of framing the problem,” Rosen said. “Rather than the kind of more, I would say simpler, kind of design project where you've got something that exists, like a coffee cup, and the project is to design a better handle. You know what it's going to look like from the beginning.”

“The kinds of things we do? You have no idea what it's going to turn out to be like,” he laughed.

In this case, there was a need to find a way to disassemble and dispose of K-Cups, those tiny portion packs filled with coffee, tea, and hot chocolate mix that are used with Keurig coffee machines.  Every K-Cup contains components that could be recycled or composted, but the plastic cup would first have to be separated into its individual parts. This has proven to be a problem for companies like Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, which must throw out thousands of K-Cups during quality control. According to Rosen, as many as 80,000 K-Cups are discarded daily.

Rosen like the fact that the challenge addressed a real environmental concern. In recent years, sustainability has become an important part of design engineering, and Rosen wanted to reflect that trend. “It seemed like something that was worthy instead of a trumped up design program for kids,”  he said. “It was something that meant something.”

Inspired by the simple mechanical hand tools of the 19th century, Rosen charged his students to design a counter-top machine that would be easy to use, efficient, and portable. In the spirit of the Apollo 13 engineers, each team was supplied with exactly 13 items to use in the construction of their device. Teams were equipped with a can opener, a package of cabinet hinges, a turkey baster, a  fine-mesh strainer, a springy door stop, a pizza slicer, a package of paring knives, a package of mouse traps, a package of plastic Rubbermaid containers, one winged corkscrew, one spring-loaded ice cream scoop, one c-clamp, and one multi-blade tomato slicer.
“The point was to give them things to scavenge,” explained Rosen. He expressly selected items that could be found in any average home kitchen, things that could easily be taken apart. Rosen said that his goals were twofold – to inspire his students to be inventive and to teach them the importance of reusing materials.

“It's actually something that I think designers, engineers, creative people really need to be good at,” he said.

With their pizza slicers and corkscrews at hand and a spot welder and drill press ready on standby, the teams set to work. Students met for two sessions each day, and were given five days to complete their project. Although that might sound like a good amount of time, Rosen said that the team members had to make every minute count.

“Imagine having the proverbial blank piece of paper and a two sentence description of a need. It's a huge process that has to happen, and when you try to bang that all into a week...!”

By day five, each team had discovered a different way to reduce a K-Cup to bite-sized pieces.  One machine used the can opener blade twice, once to sever the bag containing the coffee grounds and again to saw off the plastic rim of the K-Cup. Another used a mousetrap to slap the K-Cup against a hard surface, knocking the coffee grounds out by force.  Because every design was prominent in a unique way, they each received a special award, in addition to the prize for overall winner.

In the end, Rosen was pleased with both the ingenuity and the humor students applied to their work, things he believes are vital to design engineering.

“Whimsy is rejected as not being serious enough, and I think that's a disastrous reaction because I think that whimsy and humor are inextricably linked to creativity. You stifle one, you're going to stifle all of it.”