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An Evaluation of the Life Cycle of Compostable Coffee Capsules
By Alaine Johnson
We are caught in a catch-22 relationship with single-use disposables. With a rising concern for hygiene and addiction to convenience, single-use coffee pods are a popular choice for home coffee drinkers because they don't require an elaborate setup, clean up, and a stash of pods can be stored with a longer shelf life.
Puncturing and throwing each pod after drinking a small espresso shot feels wasteful, but a broader understanding of the carbon footprint of coffee production shows that these pods may be the future of drinking more sustainable coffee at home.
At first glance, the numbers cast a bad look for coffee capsules. An estimated 39,000 pods are produced every minute around the world with up to 75 percent of those ending their life cycle in landfills. What happens in the rest of that life cycle gives a more complete picture of the impact of using coffee capsules.
The energy required to cultivate, harvest, process, transport, roast, and brew coffee is substantial. Producing 1kg of Arabica beans emits around 15kg of carbon dioxide. As coffee drinkers, we can’t decide on growing and processing methods, but we can control which coffees we buy and how we consume them.
Using capsule coffee uses an average 5.7 grams of coffee per cup versus 7 grams for a cup of filter coffee. If you extrapolate that to consider the 2 billion cups of coffee consumed daily, capsules significantly reduce the amount of energy needed to produce the coffee input required. In fact, capsules have the least environmental impact with regards to the greenhouse gas emissions, agrochemical inputs, and water required for coffee production.
However, we don’t see any of that - we only see what we use and throw.
The next thing to consider is the energy to brew your coffee. The traditional espresso shot ranks the worst for energy efficiency, whereas capsules instantaneously heat the precise amount of water needed for one serving, which also avoids boiling extra water if using a kettle.
We can also evaluate the impact of the capsule material itself. Manufacturing virgin plastic or aluminium foils for the single-serve pods introduces new waste streams into the environment. Using compostable materials, Bettr Coffee capsules repurposes and transforms organic materials that can biodegrade.
An alternative to using compostable coffee capsules is to buy recyclable capsules - but also, to actually recycle them, which is a challenge if no means are available to do so. Nespresso launched a recycling program for their capsules in over 50 countries, but the pain points of running such a program include recollecting the capsules, dissembling the components, and collaborating with local governments for the facilities to recycle and process the coffee pods. As of now, Nespresso is reporting only a 25 percent recycling rate. For most coffee brands with fewer resources, the costs of recycling far outweigh the benefits.
Compostable coffee capsules contribute to a circular economy in which waste is reduced and coffee is used more efficiently. Manufacturing compostable materials is usually kinder on the environment than plastic, reducing the overall carbon footprint. In Singapore, No Harm Done manufactures compostable capsules that they recollect and compost on a small scale via drop-off points at Unpackt.
You can choose Bettr Coffee capsules knowing that we’re packaging convenience with a small step towards more sustainable coffee as a Sprudgie Award Winner for Most Sustainable Cafe.