Is My Coffee-Pod Machine Eco-Friendly?


The single-serve coffee pod is the hottest beverage invention since the kettle. In the US one in three households has a capsule machine, which explains the ubiquity of K-Cups, these are the pods made by U.S. market leader Keurig, which sold 9.8 billion K-Cups in 2014. U.K. coffee drinkers have awoken to the charms of single-serve pods, too. Here, Nespresso is the market leader and sales grew by 50 percent last year.

But the ubiquity of a single-use item that mixes organic waste (coffee), plastics and metals causes major eco-anxiety. Half a million viewers have watched Kill the K-Cup, a spoof disaster movie where spent capsules terrorize the planet. According to the haters, if last year’s spent coffee pods were taken out of landfills and lined up side by side, they’d wrap around the globe 10.5 times. Even the inventor of the pod, John Sylvan, has denounced them. They’ve been called the cigarette butts of the coffee industry. Ouch.

Keurig says it will make all K-Cups recyclable – but only by 2020.

Terracycle (based in the U.S.), which specializes in recycling the unrecyclable, is undeterred and has developed a system that strips the capsule into component parts, recycling the aluminum foil on top, composting the coffee grounds and recycling the filter. Meanwhile a Canadian coffee company has developed a pod that is 92 percent biodegradable. You will have spotted the flaw here; until it’s 100 percent biodegradable it’s about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

The traditional advice would be to ditch the disposable and use a drip-brew system to make your coffee. However, if you can’t do without pods – and let’s face it, you’ve already bought two capsule machines – your hopes lie in taking the heat out of using them. It might sound obvious, but commit to recycling the pods – even when you’re traveling. Don’t expect your local authority collection to take them, though: current infrastructure favors single-stream materials (i.e., simple ones).

Nespresso is at pains to point out that, as they’re made of aluminum, its pods are infinitely recyclable. To do so, book a collection via its Ecolaboration initiative, print off a label and send it off, or drop spent pods into one of the “boutiques” where it sells pods in the first place.

It would help if the coffee giants told us how many pods they recycle and set some goals, but they don’t. I’d urge them to spill the beans.

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