Ok, lets tackle the big one. Pods and their environmental impact. I want to dispel a couple of myths surrounding the subject, but it’s worth mentioning that this discussion will probably not reveal any absolutes. Why? Because these subjects are complicated and multi-faceted. There’s no right or wrong, nor is there a “silver bullet” for solving the environmental impact of brewing coffee at home.
Some brands will want you to believe that their way is the best way, but this simply isn’t the case. Every pod substrate, or brew method, for that matter has an environmental impact and this article sets out to explore this. It’s worth mentioning that I’m not a scientist, nor do I pretend to be an expert in waste management, global warming, or environmentalism. I’m just a guy that runs a business that’s invested the last three years to exploring this subject with the help of manufacturers, industry professionals and thought leaders.
Let’s start with some basics. When looking at the environmental impact of pods you first need to define what environmental attributes you are talking about? Carbon emissions? End of life waste management? Ocean plastics? Total carbon lifecycle? For us the most complete way of assessing the environmental impact of coffee pods is to look at total carbon lifecycle.
Let’s have a look at the for main coffee pod substrates and their environmental pros and cons:
Relatively efficient to produce, but most use fossil fuels for production. Unless recyclable (which almost none are) plastic pods end up in landfill and live there until the aliens invade. Has a really bad rep with the public. Correct waste management should avoid ocean plastic contribution.
Relatively efficient to produce. Aluminium is the most abundant metal on earth. Once mined aluminium can be recycled infinitely and 75% of all aluminium ever produced is still in used today. Benefits are only relevant IF users recycle the pods. If not, they end up in landfill. No risk of ending up in a whale’s gullet.
Usually made from biopolymers which at this stage are very carbon heavy to produce. IF users home compost the pods then they’re great, I mean, really great, BUT if they don’t, they’ll end up in landfill just like plastic pods. Landfill is landfill, up to a certain extent. At this point in time nobody has invented a home compostable capsule that has a full oxygen barrier (although I feel confident it’s coming), so you either need to accept your coffee will need to be consumed quickly after roasting, or have stale coffee, or pack the pods in to a secondary gas flushed bag with a oxygen barrier. This bag is not going to be compostable or recyclable. A recent study found that only 5% of compostable pods are actually being composted in the UK. Why? Main consumers of pods are busy, city dwellers who don’t have composting facilities.
The most contentious on the list. Also made of biopolymers (which use huge amounts of carbon to produce), but in this case additional heat is needed to degrade the substrate down. Sadly, only a tiny fraction of councils in the UK have industrial composting facilities, so around 80%-90% of the time these pods will end up in landfill where they’ll sit with all the plastic pods. These are, in my opinion, the worst option.
After we assessed all the options above, given the fact that quality and freshness is really important to us, we decided that the best option for us was to proceed with aluminium Nespresso® compatible pods. As long as our customers take the effort to recycle the pods their environmental impact is minimal. Yes, we’re asking our customers to do something extra, but remember I said earlier about there not being a silver bullet? We’ll this is the thing. We all need to be accountable for our waste and if the environmental impact of pods concerns you then this is a way of really helping the situation.
But what about pods in the first place? Aren’t they all really bad for the environment? Well, actually no. I’ve read many studies about which brew method has the least impact on the environment. Some are dubious (funded by the plastics industry, for example!). However, I feel fairly sure in my opinions today. Instant coffee has the least impact on the environment, so if you want to save the planet, drink instant coffee. Don’t fancy that? That’s cool.
Thankfully second place goes to, guess who? That’s right – its pods! If you take everything into account when making a cup of coffee, so we’re talking, what the carbon footprint is to manufacture the brewing equipment is, how much coffee is being wasted, how much water is being heated, waste management etc. pods score pretty high. You know how I said instant coffee is the best for the planet? Well, did you know that you’ll burn more carbon by boiling the kettle to make your cup of instant coffee then ALL the carbon that went into the production of the instant coffee itself? Crazy isn’t it? So, actually to save the planet drink cold instant coffee! Lush.
The thing that works in favour of pods is that 1. The coffee is portioned exactly and there is no waste, and 2. The machine only heats the exact amount of water it needs. These two factors make coffee prepared with Nespresso® machines have a smaller total carbon lifecycle than any other fresh brew method. If you can recycle or compost the pod at the end of the process, even better.
Don’t get me wrong, you may be able to find research out there that contradicts my views, but the above is fairly widely accepted.
We would never claim our aluminium Nespresso® compatible pods are the saviour of the planet, but we feel that as long as we keep encouraging our customers to recycle their pods we can rest easy in knowing we’re backing the right horse. And our pods taste pretty damn good too! That means something too, right?