Plastic coffee pods have gained a bad rep when it comes to the environment. Almost one third of households in the UK now own a pod-machine and there has been growing concern about the waste created from the pods. Whilst the visible waste might make these pod machines seem like the enemy, the story changes slightly when we consider the products whole life cycle. For more information on the environmental footprint of coffee, read this article.
Professor Alf Hill from the University of Bath studied the different stages of coffee production from growing the beans to disposing of the waste, assessing the impact on ecosystems, climate change and water. To the delight of pod-lovers, capsules came second to instant coffee in terms of the least environmental impact. This was followed by filter or drip coffee in third and the traditional bean-to-cup espresso in last.
“The impact, such as greenhouse gas emissions, water and fertiliser use, mostly occurs where the coffee is grown,” says Hill. “Capsules tend to need less coffee input to make a single drink and so their overall impact can be lower even though we see more waste when we throw them away.”
After the growing, the energy required to make the coffee has the second-biggest environmental impact. This explains why espresso coffees fare so badly, as it takes much vaster amounts of energy for a tiny espresso. Opposingly, capsule machines only flash-heat the amount of water needed and to a lower temperature of that of a kettle. This is why drip and filter coffee comes in third as the kettle will heat more water and to a higher temperature than needed. To make matters worse, users of drip filter machines will often leave it on if they have made more than necessary and want to keep it warm. Even further than this, research by KTH in Stockholm found that, per cup, filter coffee uses more beans than capsule (about 7g vs 5.7g), and when considering growing, processing and transport of the beans, the emissions really add up.
So good news that we don’t all need to rush to dispose of our pod machines, but, there is still a massive waste issue associated with plastic coffee pods, so how do we fix this? Well, a pod being recyclable or compostable is only beneficial if the user disposes of them correctly. Quantis’ most recent research suggests that producing plastic pods uses less energy than making aluminium ones, so it is important that the latter are both recycled by the consumer and then actually recycled by the council. Obviously, whether or not the council recycle what you put in your recycling bin is, to an extent, out of your hands. We recommend looking into your council’s recycling scheme and if you are not happy with it, write to them.
We would strongly suggest compostable pods, but it is vital that these are disposed of correctly. They will take just as much energy to produce as a plastic one and, if they end up in landfill, they will actually be worse than plastic as they will produce methane as they biodegrade in the landfill’s airless environment. There are two kinds of compostable coffee pods, one can be put in your garden waste bin if your council has one. If not, there are compostable coffee pods which can be put directly into your household’s compost.