Are reusable coffee pods a viable option?
Around the world, the number of coffee capsule machines in homes and offices has surged over the past couple of decades – with no signs of growth slowing down.
According to Statista, the number of people who own single-serve brewing machines in the US increased by 40% in 2020. Europe has the largest share of the global capsule market with 33%, but the Asia-Pacific is forecast to outpace Europe over the next few years.
Convenience and growing quality are the biggest driving forces behind capsule sales, but a rising awareness of environmental impact is becoming an increasingly important purchasing factor.
Waste is one of the biggest concerns for coffee capsule consumers, leading some single-serve coffee manufacturers to start offering a number of solutions. One of these is reusable capsules: coffee pods which can be refilled and reused many times.
To learn more, I spoke with two European companies who produce reusable coffee capsules – Evergreen Capsules in Spain and Maverick Coffee Company in the UK.
You may also like our article on whether coffee capsules can be sustainable.
What are the different types of coffee pods?
The global coffee capsule market was valued at over US $25 billion in 2020 and is estimated to grow 7% year-on-year until 2026. The global market includes a number of different solutions for reducing capsule waste, including biodegradable, compostable, and reusable options.
Natalie Hancock is the co-owner of Maverick Coffee. She defines compostable capsules.
“Compostable materials can be placed in soil to break down, but they have to decompose into matter which benefits the soil,” she says.
“The materials also have to break down relatively quickly to be certified compostable, usually at the same rate as food or garden waste.”
To comply with the European EN 13432 industrial composting standards, coffee capsules must break down within a maximum of six months. However, for consumers, it can be confusing to know how different types of compostable capsules should be disposed of.
While industrial-compatible compostable capsules must be sent to specialist facilities to fully biodegrade, home-compatible compostable capsules can be placed in personal compost heaps. However, there is no certified timeline by which home-compatible capsules must break down.
Although all compostable coffee capsules are also biodegradable by default, not all biodegradable materials are certified as compostable.
“Biodegradable refers to any material that will disintegrate in water, soil, or air over time, with the help of bacteria and enzymes,” Natalie tells me. “This can happen quickly or it can take years.”
However, some biodegradable capsules can break down into microplastics: microscopic-sized plastic particles which contaminate soil, air, and water across the globe.
Jean-Michel Palagos is the founder of Evergreen Capsules. “There can be strong doubts over the actual biodegradability rates of some capsules,” he says. “Certain studies have found that some capsules did not biodegrade as much as the company states.”
“Reusable capsules have been developed to tackle waste issues and make using a coffee capsule machine more environmentally friendly,” Natalie says.
Essentially, reusable coffee capsules can be continuously refilled with ground coffee to be used again and again – helping to minimise waste.
“Usually, reusable capsules are made from stainless steel,” Natalie explains. “You can wash them out after each use, so they’re ready for the next brew.
“Sometimes reusable capsules have foil or stainless steel lids so you can fill the capsules with the coffee of your choice,” she says.
Jean-Michel adds: “Reusable capsules usually require less coffee (around 5g) than other brewing methods.”
How popular are reusable capsules?
Natalie tells me that Maverick Coffee was one of the first UK companies to offer reusable coffee capsules. Today, however, several brands sell reusable capsules in the UK market – indicating growing demand.
“Our reusable SealPod capsules have been selling well since the launch of the website,” Natalie explains. “They account for about 60% of our sales.”
Meanwhile, Jean-Michel says around 130,000 customers have purchased reusable capsules from Evergreen over the past three years.
“The coffee capsule market is immense, so this is a small fraction of the overall market,” he explains. “It’s estimated that some 60 billion capsules are disposed of across the world each year.”
Natalie tells me it’s difficult to estimate the exact market size of reusable coffee pods, but demand for sustainable capsule options is continuing to grow.
“Our SealPod sales are growing year-on-year,” she says. “We’re also seeing an increasing number of customers looking for reusable options for their Nespresso Vertuo machines.”
However, she explains that Nespresso’s Vertuo patent creates issues for manufacturers looking to innovate on the design. Nespresso’s Vertuo patent is protected until 2030 – meaning the design of its capsules cannot be replicated by any other company until then.
“This means that reusable capsule manufacturers are unable to replicate the Vertuo shape for Nespresso-compatible machines,” she says.
Although there are various other capsule designs on the market, patent protection for capsule shapes create potential barriers for growth in the reusable market.
Who is buying reusable capsules?
Natalie explains that generally speaking, there are two types of reusable coffee pod consumers.
“Firstly, there are the customers looking for a quick cup of coffee,” she says. “Convenience is their main priority when brewing coffee, and capsule machines have been designed with these types of consumers in mind.
“Secondly, there are coffee drinkers who want convenience, but they also want to make their coffee drinking experience as ‘green’ as possible,” she tells me.
The demand for more sustainable capsule solutions is ever-increasing. A 2021 sustainability report from Deloitte found that over 61% of respondents had reduced their usage of single-serve products throughout the year – which includes single-use coffee pods.
Natalie says: “For Maverick Coffee, a lot of our customers have Nespresso machines at home, but they are no longer using them because of the high levels of waste it creates with single-use capsules.”
It’s believed that of the 39,000 capsules produced globally every minute, 29,000 are sent to landfill.
However, while the growing number of sustainable solutions is promising, Jean-Michel points out that consumers still need to be informed of how to correctly empty, clean, and refill reusable coffee capsules.
“People purchasing reusable capsules typically buy them for their ease of use, but consumers still require more information on best practices,” he says. “It’s easy once you get used to it.”
Challenges in the reusable capsule market
Although reusable coffee capsules are a more sustainable option, manufacturers and consumers still face a number of challenges when producing and using them.
“You have to be conscious of the coffee you use in reusable capsules; the grind size, roast profile, and pressure applied in the machine will all affect the end result,” Jean-Michel explains.
In particular, grind size is especially important for capsule extraction. In order to achieve high-quality results, coffee for capsules must be ground using a roller mill to an incredibly fine size. This is because the contact time between the ground coffee and water is often shorter than for espresso, so more coffee needs to be extracted during a shorter amount of time.
“For some coffees, especially 100% arabica specialty-grade coffees, we found that it is more difficult to achieve a higher quality extraction because of the 5g capsule capacity,” Jean-Michel says.
“Evergreen Capsules started selling single-use foil lids, which allows for more coffee to be placed inside the reusable capsule,” he explains. “This enhances the intensity of the coffee.”
Natalie agrees that educating consumers about which coffees should be used in reusable capsules is critical to achieving good results.
“One of the main challenges that our customers have is finding coffee with similar strengths to those used in single-use capsules,” she says. “Usually, Nespresso pods and similar brands use coffee blends containing larger amounts of robusta.
“If you’re hoping to achieve similar intensity levels from reusable pods, then you may need to use a more intense blend, or possibly use two reusable pods for one cup of coffee.”
What does the future hold for reusable capsules?
Natalie believes there is room for growth in the reusable capsule market, mainly because she says that many capsule consumers are unaware of the reusable solutions available to them.
“Larger capsule manufacturers don’t particularly want consumers to know that reusable capsules exist,” she tells me. “Naturally, they want to keep selling their own single-use pods.
“We hope that as more consumers look for sustainable capsule options, they will discover reusable coffee capsules and more people will make the switch.”
Jean-Michel says the capsule consumption has been growing significantly in the office sector, especially as more people return to work.
“We’ve found that a lot of people are consuming coffee capsules in offices, so this is one market we are looking to enter.”
Across European countries, an average 52% of the volume of coffee consumed out-of-home is in workplaces. And with the number of workers returning to offices steadily increasing, capsule machines are both an affordable and convenient brewing method for these consumers.
Jean-Michel tells me that continuous product development is necessary to keep driving quality.
“We are helping to drive innovation in the market, especially with the overall experience for the consumer.
“We see growth continuing for the foreseeable future as more and more sustainable products are developed for coffee drinkers.”
While reusable capsules may only represent a small fraction of the wider coffee pod market, the demand for sustainable options continues to grow.
And while biodegradable and compostable capsules both have their own challenges – especially regarding disposal – we may see the reusable capsules market segment experience significant growth over the next few years.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on a brief history of coffee pods.
Photo credits: Naty Creci, Bright Photography Studio
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