Environmental Laboratory

  • Why Coffee Pods Could Be Good for the Environment

Why Coffee Pods Could Be Good for the Environment

Jul 10 2019 Read 990 Times

Over the last ten years, coffee pod machines have enjoyed a stratospheric rise in popularity. In 2008, sales of them in the US alone stood at 1.8 million machines; fast forward ten years and that figure is now 20.7 million. And it’s not just across the pond where they’ve become hugely popular. In the UK, 30% of Britons owned one in 2016 and that figure can only have risen in the intervening three years.

While they are praised for their convenience and quality, critics have long bemoaned the environmental shortcomings of these machines. Specifically, it’s the generation of single-use coffee pods, which are seldom recycled due to their composition and the difficult process it takes to handle them, which has caused the most consternation.

However, new research from the University of Bath has shone a fresh perspective on the problem. By comparing the energy consumption and waste generation of coffee pod machines with other forms of coffee production, Professor Alf Hill has found that the much-maligned coffee pod might not be so bad for the environment after all.

Compact and efficient

The results of Professor Hill’s study showed that the majority of the environmental impacts at the production stage occur onsite, where the coffee is grown. This means that there is very little to choose between the different methods at this stage – unless, of course, the volume of coffee they use differs. And it does, quite significantly. Coffee pods pack a smaller, more concentrated amount of coffee into each unit than filter coffee or espresso brewing, meaning they only lose out to instant.

Meanwhile, when it comes to actually making the cup of coffee itself, pods again fare well against their counterparts. The machines flash-heat the precise amount of water needed to make a single cup, meaning they are more economical than boiling the kettle for instant, heating a jug for filter or powering the hob for espresso coffee. “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,” explains Professor Hill.

Waste not want not

Indeed, it is the waste stream produced by coffee pods which are the biggest obstacle to obtaining respectable environmental credentials. According to recent research, as many as 39,000 of the pods are produced every single minute, with 29,000 of those ending up in landfill. The majority of pod manufacturers favour plastic as the primary material in their product, contributing further to the dangerous problem of microplastic pollution. Aluminium and compostable alternatives are available, though both require complex recycling processes which discourage users from doing so.

Indeed, given that biodegradable bags were recently shown to be as persistent in the environment as normal ones, and given that coffee pods tend to endure in the atmosphere far longer than bags, there might not be too much to choose between the various types of pod material. “Coffee capsule companies claim their products are recyclable, and they are right,” says an expert on the subject. “The problem is that they are not well collected, and their recycling is complicated.” As a result, coffee pods in their present form, without any monetary incentive for customers to return them, certainly produce more waste than other alternatives. But if comprehensive recycling of the pods could be achieved, they could become, if not good for the environment, at least the lesser of the evils on offer.

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