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Coffee pods have long been criticized for their poor sustainability. Not only are consumers concerned with the excessive carbon footprint in coffee production, but also with the effects of disposing of coffee pods which, until recently, were almost impossible to recycle. Numerous attempts have been made to improve coffee pods’ negative environmental impact, with a fully compostable coffee pod now entering the market.
To create fully compostable coffee pods, University of British Columbia researcher Dr Zac Hudson has developed a bioplastic material and method for using bioplastics in coffee production. Consumers responded well to this solution to the environmental problems with their coffee consumption, buying all available compostable coffee pods from an e-commerce store on the first day they went on sale in February 2021.
The Scale of the Coffee Pod Problem
Coffee pod machines have become a staple kitchen appliance in households worldwide. Machine sales rose from 1.8 million units in 2008 to 20.7 million in 2018 in the US, according to Euromonitor research. Now, almost 40% of households in the US have a coffee pod machine, and almost two-thirds of households in the UK.
Approximately 20 billion capsules are made globally every year for consumption in these machines – 39,000 every second. British compostable coffee pod producer Halo has published research which claims that three-quarters of these end up in landfill.
The waste pod capsules present serious environmental risks, taking up to 500 years to break down. Furthermore, coffee pod consumers have been found in multiple studies to seek out more sustainable options wherever they are available.
Bioplastics for Coffee Production
Hudson’s research focuses on developing new materials for a variety of industries to address sustainability issues in those industries. It was natural that he would turn his attention to what is popularly referred to as an environmental catastrophe: coffee pod machines and coffee pod disposal.
To begin, Hudson and his team investigated other bioplastics available to learn about what would and would not work for coffee pod capsules.
“We started out by importing bioplastics from overseas and trying them out for the pods we wanted to create. This helped us learn which materials worked well and which didn’t, so we could create new formulations in-house or with the help of our partners,” he said.
Hudson formulated a new bioplastic material for the express purpose of coffee pod production. As a bioplastic, this material would be derived from wood or plant monomers, rather than the chemical or fossil fuel monomers used in traditional plastics.
Making a Coffee Pod Appear Sustainable
Finding the ideal bioplastics for coffee production was only one stage in the process of creating fully compostable coffee pods. Researchers would need to ensure the newly formulated bioplastic could be seen as a sustainable alternative by consumers.
Darren Footz, CEO of NEXE Innovations which worked with Hudson on the development of the new coffee pod, said, “This has been a huge barrier to adoption of compostable pods in the past – consumers can’t tell them and regular plastic apart.”
Hudson and his team designed a two-part solution. They used an inner core made up of the new bioplastic, which would be wrapped in a fiber sheath to provide an environmentally friendly appearance. Both parts can break down entirely in carbon dioxide, water, and organic biomass in a composting pile, leaving no trace of microplastic in the compost.
Strict Requirements for Coffee Pods
The design would need to meet the rigorous standards of coffee consumers to be viable on the market.
“Coffee drinkers are very discerning: If you make a product that is good for the planet, but the coffee tastes bad, they’re going to lose interest pretty quickly,” said Dr. Hudson. “We want our pods to be the best of both.”
Sustainable coffee pods have been criticized before for producing inferior tasting coffee to environmentally destructive counterparts. Soft bottoms in some compostable pods on the market expose the coffee to moisture and air, resulting in loss of freshness. Some also contain fewer coffee grounds as the materials that are used need to be thicker to obtain the same mechanical strengths, resulting in a weaker cup.
Hudson and his team used polylactic acid (PLA) compounded with other natural ingredients to formulate the bioplastic for the inner capsule, and the outer jacket for their pods was made from bamboo. These materials satisfied consumer demands for sustainability as well as a good-tasting product and the prototype product was sold out within a day of appearing on an e-commerce site in February 2021.
Alternatives to Fully Compostable Coffee Pods
Compostable coffee pods have been on the market for a few years, but consumer and manufacturer uptake has been relatively low so far. The environmental benefits are only achieved if the consumer correctly disposes of them in composting piles – compostable coffee pods that go to landfill will decompose like other carbon waste, taking up landfill space and releasing methane in the process.
Nestlé – which produces 14 billion of the 20 billion coffee pod capsules consumed globally each year through its Nespresso brand – is focussing on aluminum coffee pods that can be recycled in specialist facilities. They have recently partnered with rival producers in the UK on a multifaceted project seeking to recycle more of the pods they sell, with local authority waste collection and private delivery companies providing the necessary infrastructure.
Considering the scale of harm that global coffee consumption causes to the planet and its ecosystems, all innovations should be welcome.
References and Further Reading
Moskvitch, Katia (2019). “Turns out coffee pods are actually pretty good for the environment.” Wired. [Online.] https://www.wired.co.uk/article/coffee-pods-nespresso-recycling.
“Scientists Use New Bioplastic to Make Fully Compostable Coffee Pod.” (2021). Special Chemistry. [Online.] https://omnexus.specialchem.com/news/industry-news/bioplastic-compostable-coffee-pod-000224048.
Smithers, Rebecca (2020). “Nestlé joins others to set up first UK-wide coffee pod recycling scheme.” Guardian. [Online.] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/nov/20/nestle-first-uk-wide-coffee-pod-recycling-scheme.