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What’s The Environmental Impact Of Using Coffee Pods?

smoking coffee pod image and text "Almost 200 million capsules are bought in the UK each year and 1 in 5 of us own a coffee pod machine"

Generally, pods are not accepted by local recycling collections, which means that the majority of them end up in landfill. Over in Hamburg, coffee pods have been banned in state-run buildings in a bid to reduce waste. Should we be doing the same in the UK? Now that pod sales have eclipsed instant coffee in the UK, perhaps we should think a bit harder about how we can deal with these things.

Having touched on the taste of the coffee inside capsules in the last part of this series, in this edition we’re looking at the impact coffee pods have on the environment.

*according to Kantar World Panel
**according to The Grocer magazine

Who won the race for biodegradability?

In a world of edible cutlery and wood fibre beer bottles (promised by Carlsberg but not yet released), you might be wondering why manufacturers haven’t come up with a biodegradable alternative to plastic or aluminium pods yet. The nature of the brewing process means that pods need to be strong enough to withstand immense heat and pressure, but is it impossible to brew a pod coffee in a more environmentally-friendly manner?

No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable. The plastic is a specialized plastic made of four different layers.” 

John Sylvan, creator of the Keurig K-Cup

As daunting as that may sounds it seems not all hope is lost. In 2015 at the Milan Expo, Lavazza unveiled a fully biodegradable coffee capsule made from thistles. Hopefully, this will prompt the likes of Nespresso and Keurig to follow suit, but in the meantime, hundreds of millions of pods continue to stack up in landfill sites which will take over 500 years to biodegrade while a fully recyclable alternative has yet to be invented.

Camps are divided on just how bad pods are for the environment with one source claiming that, even if you put together all the coffee pods produced worldwide by Nespresso between 1986 and 2012, the weight in metric tonnes would be under 1% of the total waste generated in Germany in 2012. However, Germany produces 56 billion kilos of waste each year so 1% is still a horrendous amount.

How to dispose of them

Nespresso coffee pods can be recycled by taking them into one of their 9 Nespresso UK boutiques or by sending them off in the post. Illy, Dolce Gusto and Tassimo have their own recycling schemes which usually entails sending used capsules off to a specialised recycling plant. Most local recycling collections don’t take pods because they are made up of a mix of materials. However, you might be able to disassemble the pod and recycle parts of it and use the coffee grounds for composting but this defeats the point of having ‘convenient coffee’.

Kill the K Cup Campaign

Although relatively unheard of in the UK, Keurig is to the US what Nespresso is to Western Europe. In 2013, a campaign was launched against Keurig called “Kill the K-Cup” in order to raise awareness of the environmental impact K-Cups and pods are having on the environment.

As part of their campaign, they teamed up with Canadian production company Egg Studios to produce a vision of a dystopian future where pods come back to haunt the earth:

Keurig, who had a 79% share of coffee pod sales in the US in 2015, are committed to ensuring their K-Cup pods are fully recyclable by 2020. The campaign served to raise environmental awareness which appears to have had an impact in the US as sales of Keurig coffee machines have fallen even though sales of pod machines continue to rise in Europe.

Conclusion

Nespresso coffee pods hold 6g of coffee in 3g of packaging and while it is possible to recycle almost all the coffee pods currently on the market, recycling figures are hard to come by. With sales of pods expected to treble in the UK by 2020, millions of pods will continue to be loaded onto landfill sites for years to come providing archaeologists in the next millennium with an insight into twenty-first century consumer habits.

The point with coffee pods isn’t about recycling — it’s about cutting down on the amount of stuff that we need to throw away or recycle

Piotr Barczak, waste policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau

Drink (coffee) responsibly

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