Millions of people start their day with a cup of coffee and many of those choose the convenience of coffee pods. In 2014, pods accounted for 34 % of all coffee sales, a massive growth of 133,710 % since 2000. Since coffee is globally the second most traded commodity (after crude oil), this translates into billions of pods consumed worldwide. Nespresso alone sold 28 billion pods in 2014.
What happens to all those pods once the coffee in them has been consumed? Let's first look at the production of coffee pods. The materials needed for the pods, like aluminum, paper and plastics, need to be made and shipped to the production site, which are usually around the equator where the coffee is grown. Nespresso used to use only virgin aluminum for its pods, created from new raw material that has undergone a process of refinement and electrolysis. Aluminum can be continuously recycled and therefor the company introduced a recycling program in which consumers can return used capsules at a Nespresso store or put them in a recycling bag that can be mailed to Nespresso for free. The coffee grounds are either turned into nutrient-rich compost and topsoil or turned into biogas. The aluminum is processed and reused to produce new products. It is not known how many pods are being sent back for recycling, but you can imagine that people that use coffee pods do so for the convenience and recycling coffee pods takes effort and research, something that most people aren't prepared to do. Also, recycling pods still requires a lot of transportation and energy: recycling coffee pods is missing the point, according to Piotr Barczak, waste policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau. "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. Recycling should be the last resort when tackling waste, not the immediate solution," he says.
And even if most Nespresso cups would be recycled, other companies use different materials for their capsules, making them harder to recycle. The K-cup by Keurig for example, America's biggest selling capsule, is made from plastic, foil and fabric. So even though they changed the plastic to polypropylene, which is sometimes accepted for recycling, the pod as a whole is not suitable for recycling (unless the consumer makes the effort of dismantling the coffee pod and separating each part). This means that billions of coffee pods end up in landfills every year. Keurig has pledged to make 100 % of its pods recyclable by 2020, but critics say they are not moving fast enough and consumers should avoid pod systems that are not recyclable, and “tell the world you won’t until they can be recycled,” says Mike Hachey, chief executive of Egg Studios, the Canadian company behind the Kill the K-Cup video. “It is the consumer that can create change with these delinquent corporations by pressuring them”.
But it is not only the disposal fase that should be addressed in the coffee (pod) cycle. Eugene Tay, director of sustainability consultancy Green Future Solutions, notes that manufacturers should look at all stages of the life cycle of their products. These include the type of farming practices employed in bean cultivation, manufacturing processes, packaging, the energy and water efficiency of the machines, transport and distribution, and how easily the machines can be recycled or repaired. When considering all these, a 2009 study by global research firm Quantis found that drip filter coffee has a higher environmental impact than instant or pod coffee. It found that drip filter coffee used more water and energy than capsule espresso coffee and instant coffee. A cup of filter coffee also required 17 grams of raw coffee beans to produce, twice as much as capsule coffee (8g) and instant coffee (4g). However, it is difficult to compare these since there are many unknowns, like how much coffee is wasted and how long the machine stays on. A 2011 study by Empa (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research) showed that it is not so much the preparation method but the the content which matters most. Roland Hischier, Empa's ecobalance expert: "A well-informed choice of coffee is in any case the best option for the environment." The environmental damage caused during the growth of the coffee crop has the largest impact on the ecosystem. So the best thing to do is to choose a coffee which bears an ecological label.