Are Coffee Pods Bad For The Environment?

How Bad Are Coffee Pods for the Environment?
In 2006, Hollywood star George Clooney became an advocate for coffee pods, those capsules made of heat resistant plastic and aluminum designed to with for single-serve coffee machines made by Keurig and Nespresso. More than ten years later, these coffee pods are very popular in European households; in the United Kingdom alone, more than 200 million coffee pods are purchased at supermarkets and from online retailers such as Amazon.

The popularity of these Java capsules, which are predominantly made of non-biodegradable materials, begs to ask the following question: Are coffee pods bad for the environment?

Calculating the Environmental Impact

The coffee pods have vastly surpassed sales of instant coffee and single-serving packets made of paper. These capsules are not as popular in the Americas, where coffee drinkers are still used to brewing beans in percolators, drip machines, French presses, and traditional strainers. In the UK, however, Keurig and Nespresso machines can be found in 20 percent of households.

Nespresso estimates that it has sold more than 25 billion coffee pods around the world over the last few decades. In 2016, a former Nespresso CEO stated that coffee pods could become an environmental nightmare over the next few years, and he even made a point of underscoring the dichotomy of having George Clooney promote these capsules since he is known as an environmental activist.

The carbon footprint of a single coffee pod is uncomfortable high: it may take centuries for a capsule to reach a full breakdown point, and by then it would have likely released harmful substances into the soil and atmosphere.

New waste disposal difficult: the used pods of coffee

Recycling Coffee Pods

Another environmental concern associated with coffee pods is that they are not easy to recycle. Nespresso has a recycling program in place in more than two dozen countries, but it is hardly efficient. An ideal situation consists of taking the pods apart, salvaging the recyclable material and using the coffee grounds for compost. Even after this process, recycling the aluminum and polymer is something that costs more than manufacturing.

Eco-Friendly Coffee Pods

Since recycling is not likely to diminish the considerable carbon footprint of coffee pods, a couple of alternatives have been mentioned. First of all, coffee drinkers should know that they have a choice. Brewing ground and roasted coffee beans with the use of a French press, a cloth strainer or even a drip machine leaves less of a carbon footprint.

Biodegradable coffee pods are already here; they have introduced a couple of years ago in Italy, a country that certainly loves coffee. These pods are made of thistle plants and achieve a full breakdown in just a few weeks. The aforementioned former Nespresso CEO is now the director of a company that makes biodegradable coffee capsules.

It will take a while for traditional coffee pods to lose popularity. Coffee giants such as Illy, Keurig, and Nespresso will have to launch marketing campaigns to convince coffee drinkers that pods are not the way to go; in fact, the entire single-serve methodology should be called into question.