February 28, 2022

Can coffee capsules be sustainable?


There’s no denying the immense popularity of coffee capsules and pods across the world. Research organisation Mordor Intelligence estimated the global market was valued at over US $25 billion in 2020. It also expects the market to grow by over 7% annually, as more and more consumers opt for both convenience and quality.

However, along with this rise in popularity, we’re also seeing consumer awareness around environmental sustainability in the wider coffee industry grow.

In 2021, Deloitte released a 2021 sustainability report which indicated a wider shift towards more sustainable consumer behaviour around the world. The findings showed that over 61% of respondents claimed they reduced their usage of single-serve products, as well as nearly 1 in 3 consumers stating they stopped purchasing from brands perceived to be “unethical”.

It’s fair to say that coffee capsules have caused significant environmental concern since entering the market in the 1990s. Despite this, over 400 Nespresso capsules are estimated to be consumed every second around the world – potentially creating vast amounts of waste.

But can this be prevented? To find out, I spoke to two professionals in the coffee capsule market segment. Read on to learn more.

You may also like our article on a brief history of coffee pods.

aluminium coffee capsules

The main issues

Statista reports that in 2020, 40% of US households owned a single-serve brewing system, and this number is believed to have increased over the course of the pandemic.

But despite their immense popularity, coffee capsules have been the focus of many sustainability concerns over the past decade. Research from a UK coffee brand claims that out of the 39,000 capsules produced globally every minute, 29,000 go to landfill.

The two most common materials used to manufacture capsules include aluminium and plastic. And although aluminium is infinitely recyclable, the number of capsules sent to landfill doesn’t appear to be significantly decreasing.

Reinhard Trumme is the Authorised Officer for Golden Compound: a company which uses sunflower seed hulls to produce recyclable and home-compostable coffee capsules.

“Aluminium capsules have a bad public image for producing high volumes of waste, while plastic capsules are generally not recyclable,” he explains.

This has ultimately led more brands producing recyclable, compostable, and reusable capsules to avoid contributing to these rising levels of waste. 

But Reinhard tells me that problems also arise with more sustainable alternatives, even when they are seemingly correctly disposed of.

“Few bio-based capsules actually degrade completely in industrial composting plants,” he explains. 

This is typically because most recycling facilities don’t have the capacity to correctly dispose of capsules – meaning they will then likely be sent to landfill instead.

Saul Lakofski is the owner and Director of Coffeecaps: an Australian manufacturer of Nespresso-compatible capsules. He explains why compostable and biodegradable capsules going to landfill is still a major sustainability issue.

“If capsules are disposed of in regular waste bins then they end up going to landfill and will not break down; they act similarly to plastic.”

Under EU law, industrial-compostable materials are required to completely break down by six months maximum, but this can only occur under the optimal conditions. 

If biodegradable and compostable capsules are sent to landfill, they are often deprived of oxygen, heat, and airflow – meaning they could remain intact for years.

plastic coffee capsules

Consumer perceptions of capsules

Even though there are a number of environmental issues associated with capsules, they still remain incredibly popular among consumers. 

In a 2019 survey, Wired revealed that one-third of UK households owned a capsule machine. Across all of Western Europe, it’s estimated that capsules account for a staggering one-third of total coffee sales, according to BBIA.

However, in recent years, consumers’ opinions have started to become more conflicted. This is grounded in environmental sustainability issues, but balanced by the sheer convenience they offer, as well as the continually improving quality of the coffee contained in them.

A 2019 poll from online food and beverage publication The Grocer found that 10% of British consumers believed capsules were bad for the environment. However, to drive home this conflict of interest, 22% of respondents in the same poll said they owned a capsule machine.

Reinhard believes that certain demographics are more likely to disapprove of coffee capsules and pods. 

“Younger people are particularly critical of capsules,” he explains. 

In 2021, Forbes reported that most Generation Z consumers (people born after 1997) are willing to spend 10% more on sustainable products and brands. A similar trend is emerging with millennials.

Ultimately, this may mean that younger demographics are less likely to purchase capsules as a result of their greater focus on sustainability.

These growing concerns over capsule production have also led to several bans, most notably in Hamburg in 2019. The city’s council implemented a ban on purchasing “polluting” and “portioned packaging” products (which includes capsules).

However, some argue that the environmental issues with coffee capsules mostly lie with a lack of consumer knowledge around how to dispose of them. 

“The vast majority of capsule consumers actually do not know how to correctly dispose of them,” Saul says. “They also do not know which materials the capsules are made of. 

“Nespresso and other aluminium capsules can be recycled through dedicated return programmes, but many capsules still end up in landfill.”

In 2017, Nespresso trialled a six-month aluminium capsule collection scheme with London’s Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Local council recycling services collected the used capsules and transported them to Nespresso recycling facilities.

Alongside this trial, Nespresso’s ongoing aluminium recycling scheme is now active in 53 countries with over 100,000 drop off locations. The company invests CHF 40 million a year (over US $43.2 million) in the programme, with a global recycling rate of 30% as of 2020.

Meanwhile, some believe that the consumer awareness around proper capsule disposal could be improved by better instructions on packaging. 

In early January 2022, Keurig Canada paid CA $3 million (US $2.4 million) in a lawsuit over false and misleading claims made to consumers about recycling its K-Cup capsules – shifting the blame towards manufacturers, rather than consumers.

biodegradable coffee capsules

Are capsules becoming more sustainable?

Even with the obvious environmental concerns, steady progress is being made in terms of producing more sustainable capsules. Some even contend that they’re already a more sustainable form of drinking coffee, in spite of the high volumes of waste they are often associated with. 

For instance, in 2019, the University of Bath conducted a study on the environmental impact of coffee consumption, looking at every stage of the supply chain (including disposal). The results concluded that capsules had the second lowest environmental impact levels, while espresso had the highest.

However, the main reason for this conclusion was that less coffee is used in a single capsule, compared to one cup of filter coffee or one espresso. 

Ultimately, this means that per capsule, less water, fertiliser, and other resources are used to produce the coffee – leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions overall.

Environmental consulting agency Quantis also found that capsule machines used less energy overall than filter or espresso machines.

“Capsule machines with an auto switch-off mode have a lower environmental impact than larger espresso machines in cafés, for instance,” Saul adds.

However, the wider industry focus is on implementing ways to reduce capsule waste, rather than the production of capsules. Reinhard explains how Golden Compound capsules are produced using more organic materials in order to make waste disposable more sustainable.

“The raw material of Golden Compound capsules is mostly bio-based and contains a high proportion of sunflower seed shells,” he says. “This is a byproduct, which falls off when harvesting sunflower seeds. We then produce capsules using an injection moulding process.”

Saul reiterates that reducing capsule waste is a high priority for many coffee companies.

“Coffeecaps works with many roasters who send us their coffee, and then we grind the coffee and fill the capsules for them,” he tells me. “The vast majority of these roasters take sustainability seriously – they want a circular solution.”

nespresso coffee

What does the future hold for capsule sustainability?

It’s evident that global capsule consumption rates aren’t slowing down, so how can we reduce waste in the long term? 

“Consumers want to do the right thing: manufacturers just need to give them the opportunity and means to do so, mainly through recycling and return programmes,” Saul tells me.

“Even compostable capsules need a dedicated return programme, if they are industrial-compostable,” he adds. “This means they need to go to an industrial composting facility.

“Coffeecaps has teamed up with Terracycle to provide a programme where consumers can return our industrial-compostable capsules for free composting.”

However, Reinhard believes that wider changes to infrastructure are needed in order to achieve a more circular model.

He says: “A uniform approach to improving recycling and compostability rates is important.

“Capsules should meet at least two certifications – OK compost-industrial and OK compost-home – so that consumers can be sure that the capsules will fully biodegrade.”

TÜV Austria’s OK compost certifications are widely recognised as one of the leading certifications for compostable products, alongside the Seedling logo. 

For capsule packaging to be classified as “compostable”, it must break down into non-toxic, organic compounds which benefit the soil. Alternatively, biodegradable capsules must cause no pollution to their surrounding environment once they decompose.

“We are the only capsule company in Australia which is certified by the Australian Bioplastics Association,” Saul tells me. “Our roaster partners can use the Seedling logo on their packaging.

“We will be manufacturing the first certified home compostable capsules this year.”

However, in order to see the full effects of more sustainable capsule materials, recycling and composting facilities need to be able to correctly dispose of them. 

Currently, bioplastics and compostable plastics take too long to degrade at standard composting facilities, and are therefore not widely accepted. As these materials are generally tested in laboratories under strictly controlled conditions, they take significantly longer to break down when temperature, airflow, and oxygen levels are not regulated.

capsule coffee

The environmental problems associated with capsules are bigger than the coffee industry. In order to improve capsule sustainability, significant and widespread changes will be necessary to make it easier to dispose of them responsibly.

While this is not a simple task, the more that the organisations responsible instigate these changes – namely capsule manufacturers and local government authorities – the more positive the outcome will be.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on single-serve coffee bags.

Photo credits: Coffee Caps

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