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Are coffee pods bad for the environment?

Are coffee pods bad for the environment - featured. Close up of a blue used coffee pod lying on a white surface with more pods in the background

Coffee pods have been responsible for producing a lot of waste, but recent compostable designs hint at some potential positive possibilities

Since Nestlé launched Nespresso in 1986, coffee pods (AKA coffee capsules) have not just made an indelible – if controversial – mark on coffee culture but, more importantly, on the environment as well. Many of the billions of pods produced in that time have not been recyclable and even the recyclable ones are often thrown out, as many users simply don’t know what to do with them. So, you might be wondering: is my coffee pod machine an eco-disaster?

With an estimated 95% of used pods going to landfill – that’s 56 billion of these tiny containers going into the ground, or ending up in the seas – every year. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that coffee pods are bad for the environment; however, the last decade has seen a boom in pod design, and there are now plenty of compostable or recyclable pods available in the UK. These new capsules still offer the same convenience as their forebears and will surely do less harm to the environment.

In this article, we’ll take you through how you can use coffee pods in an eco-friendly fashion, from choosing a sustainable pod design to identifying the appropriate recycling scheme. We’ll also talk through the controversial environmental impacts of coffee pods, as well as the surprising potential upsides.

What counts as a coffee pod and which type is best for the environment?

Coffee pods are made from several different materials, including plastic, aluminium and biopolymers. It’s important to know the specific model and material makeup of your pods as these will determine your options for recycling or disposal.

Aluminium pods, such as Nespresso’s official coffee capsules, have been quite controversial over the years as they used to be tricky to recycle. The biggest problem is removing the used coffee grounds from the aluminium packaging – but, thankfully, it’s now much easier via services like Podback.

Plastic coffee pods come in many shapes and sizes and can be made from various different plastics. Polyethylene ones with an accessible design can be cleaned out in the sink and recycled with your regular household plastic waste. Other plastic pods, with a more complex design, or made with more exotic plastics, can usually be recycled by specialist recycling services.

Compostable coffee pods are an excellent, eco-friendly choice. Made from materials such as the biopolymer BHA, most of these break down within about six months, some require industrial composting, though.

Reusable pods are an accessory, usually made of metal, that makes it possible to brew regular ground coffee in a coffee pod machine. They’re not coffee pods in their own right, but, by emptying, cleaning, refilling and reusing them, they’re a relatively inexpensive way to use a coffee pod machine without using pods.

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Can you recycle coffee pods?

Most coffee pod machine manufacturers now offer sustainable options for their users, whether that’s recycling schemes or compostable pods. Of course, the options vary between brands, so it’s important to identify the best, most sustainable solutions for your specific pods and coffee pod machine.

Nespresso coffee pod machines use the standard Nespresso pods, which can be recycled via their own recycling scheme. You just place your used pods (and the coffee grounds inside them) into a sealable bag provided by Nespresso, then either drop them off at a collection point or have them collected. The aluminium pods and coffee grounds are separated, recycled and reused.

At least in the UK, Nespresso pods are seen as the ‘standard’ coffee pod design and many third-party brands make pods to fit Nespresso coffee machines. However, Nespresso won’t always recycle these third-party pods on your behalf so, if you want to use another brand’s Nespresso-compatible pods – such as Artisan – then we suggest checking your recycling options, via a service such as Podback, before you buy.

You can also now get Nespresso pods that are fully compostable so you can simply leave them to break down in a compost heap or a well-ventilated compost bin. There are also refillable Nespresso pods that you can reuse repeatedly with any ground coffee – effectively transforming your coffee pod machine into something like an espresso machine. That said, if you’re thinking of using reusable pods and you haven’t yet bought a pod machine, you might be better off simply buying one of the best coffee machines instead.

Nespresso Vertuo coffee pod machines, like the Vertuo Pop, are made for use with the larger Vertuo pods, which are easy to distinguish from standard pods thanks to their domed shape. Vertuo pods can be recycled via the same Nespresso scheme as the standard pods but compostable Vertuo pods are, unfortunately, not available yet.

Are coffee pods bad for the environment. A Nespresso Vertuo Pop machine with a cup on the drip tray and three coffee pods next to it on a table with houseplants in the background

Illy coffee pod machines have their own special type of pod made from recyclable plastic, called Iperespresso capsules. Due to the used coffee grounds inside the Illy capsules, they cannot be recycled in your household recycling; however, Iperespresso capsules can now be collected for recycling via Podback.

Dolce Gusto coffee pod machines are a Nestlé-made, affordable alternative to Nespresso machines, with easier-to-recycle coffee pods. The official Dolce Gusto pods are made from a commonly recycled plastic called polyethylene, which is also used to make things like plastic bags and soft drink bottles. Simply rinse out each pod after use and put it in your household recycling.

Lavazza ‘A Modo Mio’ coffee pod machines, such as the Jolie, use Lavazza’s own A Modo Mio capsules. Since Lavazza brought in its industrially compostable ‘Eco Caps’ pod design a few years back, it’s been possible to get your Lavazza pods collected for processing via TerraCycle.

The environmental cost of coffee pods – how many go to landfill?

As we’ve seen, choosing the right pods for your coffee pod machine can reduce environmental harm. Unfortunately, many users don’t currently take advantage of a recycling programme, which means their coffee pod use remains just as bad for the environment as it ever was. For instance, the global uptake of Nespresso’s pod recycling scheme was estimated to only be around 30% in 2022.

In a 2015 interview with The Atlantic, John Sylvan, the inventor of a popular coffee pod design called the K-cup, expressed regret over his design: “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it. [The pods are] kind of expensive to use… plus it’s not like drip coffee is tough to make”, the inventor said.

It’s thought that about 39,000 coffee pods are produced worldwide every minute. In the UK alone, an estimated 300,000 used pods go to landfill each year and most of them will take five centuries to decompose.

So, what we do with our used pods, after we’ve enjoyed a convenient cup of coffee, matters on a grand scale. Some of us have yet to wake up and smell the coffee.

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Potential environmental benefits of coffee pods

On a brighter note, pod coffee drinkers might be causing less environmental harm than coffee drinkers who brew using certain other alternative methods. This is particularly true if you use a pod recycling scheme, or choose compostable pods.

A 2023 study carried out by researchers at the University of Quebec compared the overall greenhouse gas emissions generated by different methods of brewing a cup of coffee. That study found that, in the long journey from plantation to mug, a cup of pod coffee actually resulted in lower emissions than both filter coffee and French press coffee as less coffee tends to be wasted in the brewing process. Typical home users don’t measure out their coffee when they make filter or cafetière coffee and tend to use too much, whereas the ground coffee in the coffee pods is measured, so there’s no chance for such user error.

Planting, watering, harvesting, roasting, transporting, marketing and selling coffee – all of the processes required to bring it to the customer – consume resources but, as it turns out, coffee pods are one of the most efficient ways to use this water- and energy-intensive crop. As long as you’re recycling or composting your coffee pods appropriately, the environmental effects of this brewing method could be far more positive than you might expect.

Since there’s almost always a good way to deal with your used pods, please, don’t send them to landfill.

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