Thoughts

Are pods good for the environment?

A very interesting article on Wired about what impact have the various pods on the environment, plastic, aluminum and compostable ones. Comparing them with the older methods of brewing coffee like a moka pot or a pour over, turns out that the energy needed to brew a single cup of coffee with a coffee machine using pods, like any Nespresso ones, is inferior or very close to the other methods that produce less waste in materials but require more coffee (and thus more energy to harvest, roast and ship it) and energy to give you a cup of coffee. That sheds a different light on the much criticized coffee pods market.

I’m of the opinion that one of the biggest bottlenecks in being truly environmentally good is the methods of recycling our waste. Aluminum hangs around in the landfill for at least 150 years, plastic three times longer. The objective would be to not let any of the material making the coffee capsules, not forgetting the packaging, ending up in the landfills at all.

Most countries and towns are not equipped or don’t care about recycling in the correct way all the different packages we throw away and thus what may seems to us 100% recyclable turns out not to be. Nespresso capsules are mixed aluminum and plastic and while both materials are recyclable, hardly any recycling center has the knowledge and technology to accurately separate them. Nespresso has, and at least makes the effort to guarantee that used capsules sent back to them will be recycled.

Thus, despite the theoretical savings in energy and the possibility to recycle the materials, coffee pods aren’t as environment-friendly as they could be. So much that politics are starting to take measures against them (like in Hamburg) and even the former Nespresso chief-executive, Jean-Paul Gaillard, isn’t happy about having introduced the coffee pods. Things didn’t specifically go much well with its company though, as it bow out of the pods market a few years back). But its critiques stand valid.

Are compostable pods the future?

More than one of the Nespresso competitors have started producing compostable coffee pods. But what does this mean?

There are two types of compostable materials: industrial certified compostable and home certified compostable. The most commonly used one is the industrial certified, especially in the pod market.

The difference? Industrial certified pods break down much faster than home certified ones, but only under specific circumstances. Different bacteria, high temperatures and a good aeration are needed to achieve the increased results, something that hardly any town or country has recycling facilities equipped with. If you’re curious, you can use findacomposter.com to look up if nearby you there’s an industrial certified composting facility.

To make things simple, all this means that most pods aren’t truly compostable, or that they will take much longer than you may think to disappear in the environment. Home certified pods are rare but are capable to be mixed with your compost, if you have it, and break down with relative easiness. But who among us all has a compost? A single digit percentage.

Yet home certified compostable pods at least can break down in easier to achieve conditions. So why don’t more coffee companies use them?

Costs. As usual. The technology is younger than industrial certified compostable pods, and it costs more to manufacture. These pods are also weaker and less resistant to high temperatures, which can affect the coffee’s conservation and the brewing process. Home certified compostable pods don’t guarantee, yet, the same level of protection of the coffee that industrial-level ones do. Considering the added costs, it’s no wonder most compostable pods on the market aren’t home certified. Even large companies like Lavazza (with its Eco Caps) prefer industrial certified compostability levels over home certified. And if they can’t manage to make the costs acceptable, it’s hard to ask small and medium companies to do it instead.

What about biodegradable pods?

Biodegradable pods seem to solve the issues that compostable ones still have. Big players like Caffé Vergnano have started packaging their coffee in biodegradable pods. Ideally, biodegradable pods mean a material, like the most common oxo-biodegradable ones, that can completely break down in a normal landfill in about 2 years.

Different biodegradable materials exist, with different lifespans. All are much shorter than normal plastic and aluminum and of any compostable material, with the added advantage that they do break down in your normal trash bin.

Seems like a win-win situation. Yet biodegradable pods are rare, even rarer than compostable ones. Why so?

Again, costs. Biodegradable materials are about 2 to 10 times more expensive to produce than comparable non-biodegradable ones. Eventually their costs will fall as more producers will start to introduce them in their coffee pods line and consumers will begin to appreciate them (=buy them). We’re not there yet.

Also the technology, as applied to the specific necessities of ground coffee, isn’t. Most biodegradable pods are of a porous material that doesn’t prevent the coffee aroma from passing through it. That means that the coffee inside isn’t as protected as it would be with aluminum or plastic and will go stale faster. It is for this reason that often biodegradable pods are sold inside plastic bags. Caffé Vergnano does this, for instance. To prolong their aroma and taste, it is a necessary step, for now. But this creates an added sheet of plastic that needs somehow to be disposed of without polluting the environment. And we are back at the initial problem: what percentage of what we throw away can and is actually recycled?

Eventually biodegradable pods will be the destination port for the coffee pods industry. More courage is needed by companies and support from consumers to achieve this as fast as possible, to save the environment from further tons of plastic and aluminum that will pollute it for centuries.

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