Coffee capsules are convenient – but at what cost to the environment?
Anay Mridul speaks with circular economy expert Piotr Barczak to determine the true environmental impact of the world’s coffee capsule obsession.
Ever since the first coffee capsules were launched in 1986, they have had a curious ability to divide opinion.
While some swear by their quality and consistency, others won’t go within a metre of them, claiming the coffee is stale long before it arrives at the customer.
Their environmental impact is also a source of contention. Many have raised concerns about the logic of using pods that will likely end up in landfill sites or the ocean after just one use; smaller doses, flash heating, and recycling schemes are often put forward by the other side to suggest why we need to stop being so quick to judge.
Whichever side of the fence you sit, what’s undeniable is the popularity of pods. The global coffee pod market has experienced enormous growth in recent years, expanding at an annual rate of 24.2% from $9.9 billion in 2021 to $12.3 billion in 2022.
The reasons for this explosive growth run in parallel to an industry-wide trend that prioritises convenience. For many consumers, convenience is king – even more so since the pandemic – and there’s considerable value in products that are affordable, multifunctional, and easy to use.
Using coffee capsules eschews the need for equipment like scales, grinders, and filter papers, and makes an everyday process much quicker. Perhaps that’s why, even with soaring inflation, the coffee capsule market is expected to reach a market value of $16.7 billion within the next three years.
But as more and more companies, especially in the specialty coffee sector, enter the segment, those of either side of the fence have become increasingly vocal. And, now more than ever, many are asking whether the market is choosing convenience at the planet’s expense.
The environmental impact of coffee capsules
Earlier this year, the University of Quebec published a study that drew widespread attention. It claimed that brewing coffee with a capsule could cut down carbon emissions compared to other methods.
Their analysis considered the entire process, from production to the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill after the cup is finished. It found that, compared to a French press, the amount of coffee inside each capsule is controlled, which saves around 11-13g of coffee.
However, many have contested this. One study suggests that coffee pods account for more emissions than other brewing methods. Another goes beyond coffee, calling capsules among the worst forms of human waste for the environment when it comes to long-term damage.
Piotr Barczak is the circular economy program manager at the ACEN Foundation, an organisation dedicated to driving sustainability in Africa. He refers to coffee pods as an example of how our consumption isn’t aligned with the principles of resource and energy efficiency – and offers a counterargument to the University of Quebec’s findings.
“Just for our misconception of comfort, we are misusing resources,” Piotr says. “On average, one capsule is 9g: 6g are coffee grounds and 3g packaging. Already, this shows us that the product is overpackaged. I don’t know any other examples of such inefficiency, where more than 30% of a product is its packaging.
“We, as consumers want a tasty coffee, not packaging, right? But we pay a lot for it.”
He also dismisses the idea put forward by the University of Quebec study that people are consistently over-using the amount of water and coffee they use when they brew coffee: “Each consumer is aware of waste and energy usage, and counts how much water they need to make for a specific number of people.”
Apart from the materials used to make coffee pods – for example, Keurig uses plastic derived from fossil fuels, and Nespresso uses aluminium (which needs a lot of energy to produce) – recycling them is the biggest climate issue.
Speaking to NPR, Nespresso USA’s sustainability head, Anna Marcina, revealed the company spends more than $35 million annually on a coffee capsule recycling system – but only 36-37% actually gets recycled in the US.
While compostable pods are cropping up on the market, Piotr says it’s very difficult to recycle traditional single-serve coffee capsules, since there are usually three materials – plastic, aluminium and biomass (the spent grounds) – bundled together, and hard to separate.
“When encapsulated in a capsule, these go to landfill or incineration, generating only more emissions.”
He adds that many manufacturers aren’t covered enough (or at all) by extended producer responsibility, so there isn’t adequate financial incentive to collect and process these materials separately. “As a result, they end up in a residual stream, which is the most expensive to cover. And therefore, the costs for waste management increase.”
Is there a better alternative?
Since the 1980s, manufacturers have undoubtedly made progress in reducing the environmental impact of coffee capsules.
Growing pressure from consumers has seen concerted efforts to swap plastic for compostable materials and improve the lifespan of the machines themselves. PodBack, a dedicated coffee capsule recycling scheme, has also helped reduced waste in a number of cities. In one UK city, over 200,000 coffee pods were collected in just six months.
However, as Piotr points out, problems persist with the format. What’s more, each serving is considerably more expensive than a whole bean bag of coffee, yet the higher prices are because of the packaging rather than because the farmers are being paid more.
According to the Speciality Coffee Retail Price Index, 1lb of coffee is priced between $18.28 and $38.99 by most US specialty roasters. In comparison, the cheapest Nespresso pods in the US cost 80 cents each. Given that standard Nespresso capsules contains around 5g of coffee each, that equates to about $70 for each pound of coffee – way higher than the coffee you’d buy for traditional machines.
So this all leads to the question: is there a better alternative? For businesses that typically use capsule machines, such as hotels and coworking spaces, a better option is superautomatic coffee machines.
Like capsules, they provide convenience and consistent cups of coffee by controlling parameters such as water temperature and grind size. However, rather than relying on wasteful, single-serve pods, they freshly grind the coffee from whole bean.
Superautomatic coffee machines can also produce a wide range of milk drinks, including flat whites, macchiatos, and cappuccinos. This is without the need for a separate milk steamer, keeping the grinding, steaming, and extraction all in one place.
Coffee capsules continue to be wildly popular with convenience a clear driving force in the sector. But let’s not allow ourselves to lose sight of what’s most important. After all, if climate change continues on its course, there won’t be any coffee to serve whichever brewing method we prefer.