When you only use a couple of small coffee pods a day, it’s hard to see how these might amount to a growing environmental problem. Fast, efficient, and relatively cheap, these disposable capsules are continuing to invade caffeine-dependent households and offices accross the country. Which means they add up - according to some reports, Australians consume around 3 million single-serve coffee pods every single day.
Even though individual pods look tiny and innocuous, millions of kilograms of aluminium have potentially ended up in landfills since Nespresso introduced their colourful pods into the market. Aluminium is the most abundant metal in Earth’s crust, but its production is energy-intensive, and thus the material should be reused whenever possible.
According to Brad Gray, head of campaigns at the environmental foundation Planet Ark, the aluminium used in Nespresso pods is actually quite easy to recycle - but you can’t just toss them in your home recycling bin and feel better. Materials recovery facilities are not equipped to cope with items that small.
“The recycling system is designed to deal with bottles and cans, and things like that - if anyone puts a pod in their home recyling bin, it will just fall through the [filtering] screen and become a contaminant in the recycling system,” explains Gray.
Instead, to recycle your pods you need to collect them in a plastic bag and return to a Nespresso collection point. (As of September 2016, Nespresso also sells pre-paid Australia Post satchels consumers can send back to the company for recycling, with up to 130 capsules at a time.) The company claims that by 2013 they were able to collect 75 per cent of all capsules sold worldwide, but they haven’t revealed data on how many they actually recycle. In Australia, pod collection is done by a company called TerraCycle, whose mission is to divert hard-to-recycle waste from landfills.
Even if in the best case scenario most aluminium pods do get a second life, there are plenty of other brands on the market - and this poses additional sustainability problems and increases landfill waste even more dramatically.
“The difficulty arises when you have other materials in the pods,” says Brad Gray. “Some of the other brands, particularly supermarket home brands, are made out of plastic, or plastic with an aluminium lining, so they’re not recyclable at all.” Such a composite plastic capsule could stick around in the environment for centuries, and potentially contribute to the world’s growing plastic problem.
Searching for alternatives
Some will argue that coffee pods are economical, because they only use five grams of coffee per pod, while a barista will dish out a good 10-15 grams. But the minuscule amount of grounds can affect flavour, too. In taste tests conducted by consumer advocate group Choice coffee pod brew has been described as “watery”, “stale”, or “underwhelming”.
Still, the convenience still appeals to many, and people are in search of ways to enjoy single-serve pods without a heavy weight on their conscience. One greenie option are The Ethical Coffee Company’s pods, made out of vegetable fibre and starch. The company claims these containers completely biodegrade within 6 months - but there’s a catch there, too.
“Biodegradable pods are heading in the right direction, but for the most part they need to go through a commercial composter, rather than through a small home composting bin,” explains Gray. “And if they end up going to landfill, they’ll just end up acting like any other biological material landfill, so they’ll break down, and potentially produce methane.”
However, some would consider this a better deal than an aluminium capsule that hangs around that same landfill for a 150 years.
Just don’t do disposable
To counter the disposable nature of the product, and cut down on costs, refillable pods are starting to appear, too. These plastic capsules with flip-top filter lids can supposedly extend the life of a single coffee pod to 10 or even 20 uses.
Some consumers are even DIY refilling their Nespresso pods and resealing them with a piece of aluminium foil to squeeze a bit more life out of the container, while others outright dismiss that as too much work, or as too unpredictable in terms of coffee quality.
In the end, if you want to be an environmentally friendly consumer, disposability has to be taken into account, and avoided as much as possible.
“Pods are kind-of an equivalent to a plastic bag or a disposable coffee cup,” says Brad Gray. “If you can find options that are not single use, in almost all cases that is better for the environment.”
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Editor's note:This article was updated on 7 September to reflect new information about Nespresso's mailable satchels.