By 2027, the global coffee capsule market is predicted to be worth more thannUS $51 billion. However, this staggering growth has also led to vast amounts of waste going to landfill around the world.
Packaging Online claims that plastic-based capsules can take up to 500 years to break down. This then causes microplastics to spread across the world and end up in soil, sand, and waterways.
Despite these environmental concerns, coffee capsules are still popular among consumers. But as demand for more sustainable products in the coffee industry increases, the number of alternatives for plastic capsules is also rising. One of these alternatives is compostable coffee capsules.
To learn more about this emerging market, I spoke with two companies who produce them. Read on to find out what they said.
You may also like our article on whether coffee capsules can be sustainable.
Problems with materials used in capsules
Since the emergence of the coffee pod market in the late 1980s, billions of single-use aluminium and plastic capsules have ended up going to landfill across the world. This has been the main driving force behind the emerging sustainable pods market.
However, even within the more environmentally-friendly capsule market segment, issues still exist. Although recyclable capsules are an option for consumers, the waste disposal solutions aren’t always straightforward.
Nespresso and Keurig are two of the biggest global coffee capsule manufacturers, producing capsules made from aluminium and recyclable plastic, respectively. Both companies run capsule recycling schemes, with Nespresso’s initiative comprising more than 100,000 drop-off points in 53 countries.
But despite these recycling schemes, consumer uptake rates remain low. Notable reasons for low recycling rates include the widespread perception that recycling capsules is difficult. A lack of consumer knowledge on how to correctly prepare capsules for recycling is also an issue as the used coffee grounds must be removed from the pods.
Biodegradable coffee pods are also available as an alternative to plastic or aluminium capsules. Although they are regarded as more sustainable than standard capsules, they can still take years to break down.
But even then, biodegradable capsules eventually become microplastics, which have been found in air, waterways, food, and even human blood. And while research on microplastics is relatively new, it’s believed they can cause harm to people and the planet.
Most biodegradable capsules also end up going to landfill, too. Furthermore, the conditions at landfill sites (such as minimal sunlight and exposure to oxygen) means that capsules are likely to produce methane as they break down. Methane is considered to be up to 80% more potent than carbon dioxide at warming average global temperatures.
Reusable coffee pods are also a more eco-friendly option. They are typically made using stainless steel and can last several decades when used and cleaned properly.
In 2015, The Global Life Cycle of Stainless Steels report found that the average global recycling rate of stainless steel was 85%. While this is high, the average recycled content of stainless steel was 44% – meaning the energy-intensive production of “virgin” stainless steel will also continue to be necessary.
What are compostable capsules?
Martin Mayorga is the founder and CEO of Mayorga Organics.
He tells me: “A truly compostable coffee capsule is one that has been verified to be able to break down under certain conditions.
“Our capsules are made of plant-based materials and are certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute of North America as industrially compostable,” Martin adds.
There are two certification categories for compostable pods: industrial and home-compatible. Both certifications come with their own set of standards which must be verified to be considered compostable. Certification standards include TÜV AUSTRIA’s OK compost and Seedling, as well as the European Union’s EN 13432 standard.
Howard Gill is the Head of Coffee for Grind coffee roasters in London, UK.
“Within the compostable category, there is a lot of variation regarding standards,” he explains. “Industrial-certified composting requires large-scale setups in dedicated facilities, but home-compatible compostable pods can be placed in home compost heaps.
“Grind is proud to have achieved home compostable certification for its capsules.”
Generally, home compostable capsules will take longer to decompose than industrial-verified ones. The standards for home composting are less stringent than industrial composting, largely because it is more difficult for certification bodies to assess personal compost heaps.
Howard tells me that Grind’s capsules are verified to decompose in a few weeks.
“Our material suppliers confirm it takes four to six weeks for the capsules to completely break down, but we’re currently doing our own tests to know for certain.”
How popular are compostable capsules?
Martin informs me that consumer demand for compostable capsules is on the rise.
“Consumers have been demanding capsules that don’t just indefinitely sit in landfills,” he says. “The industry has generally been slow to respond, but we’re finally seeing some viable options.”
While Martin is unsure of the exact market value of compostable capsules, he believes the uptake has “been strong in terms of press coverage and from more vocal consumers”.
Howard tells me that consumer uptake of compostable pods is steadily increasing.
“Market share is growing daily, especially in the commodity sector,” he explains.
“Product options are appearing everywhere, and as the industry learns more about compostable capsule options, the quality and diversity of these products are only going to improve.”
The increase in home compostable options has been particularly popular with consumers, as Howard informs me.
“We’ve seen such a positive response to our range becoming home compostable.” This could be because consumers perceive disposing of home compostable capsules as more accessible than industrial-compatible compostable capsules.
Both Martin and Howard stress how important it is for coffee brands to offer compostable capsule options.
“I don’t think it’s much of a choice,” says Howard. “We need to make these kinds of changes.”
Martin agrees, saying: “As a roaster who cares about the environment, it’s irresponsible to sell any traditional, non-sustainable capsules.
“From my perspective, any roaster that sells plastic capsules isn’t prioritising the planet – regardless of what their marketing claims might say.”
Challenges for the compostable pod market
Considering the strict standards imposed by composting regulators, achieving compostable certifications for coffee capsules can be an arduous task.
“Any time you look for alternative materials that have to be environmentally-friendly, you run into issues that need to be fine-tuned,” Martin explains. “Mayorga went through around three years of trial and error with different materials, as well as filing for and receiving the certifications.
“It was definitely a long and expensive process for us.”
Howard echoes these struggles. “Compostable materials are so much more work at the moment than more traditional capsule materials,” he says. “The manufacturing technologies are so new and they are constantly evolving.
“The availability of different colour choices is far fewer, and supply chains are much newer and untested, meaning ingredient sources are less reliable,” Howard adds. “Making our pods pink was a process!”
He points out that keeping the coffee in compostable capsules fresh can be a problem for manufacturers.
“Foil-lined materials can be so easily sealed and they form an impermeable oxygen barrier, making capsules easy to produce at scale, as well as keeping the coffee fresher.
“But compostable materials are currently more porous, meaning that the degassing of coffee occurs much quicker, even with nitrogen flushing.”
Generally, coffee contained in foil-sealed and nitrogen-flushed capsules stays fresh for between six months and one year. If consumers are not made aware of the significant shelf-life differences between conventional and compostable capsules, they could be drinking stale coffee.
What might the future hold for the compostable pod market?
There’s no denying that the global capsule market will continue growing at an unprecedented rate, with demand for more sustainable options also increasing.
“Grind’s capsules have become a huge part of our business, even outselling our beans and ground coffee sales,” Howard tells me. “We expect sales to keep growing over the next few years.
“Wholesale opportunities with coffee pods are still in their infancy, so I can see huge growth happening there.”
Martin believes that the ongoing consumer demand for compostable capsules is essential for the market to continue growing.
“It’s important for consumers to stay vocal about their demands for more genuinely sustainable coffee options,” he says. “Bigger companies will have to listen and then the material manufacturers will produce better options for the industry.”
Howard elaborates on how Grind is aiming to improve coffee freshness in compostable capsules, which will ultimately help to drive quality in the market.
“Our next production run will include a new and improved three-layer lid for the pods,” he says.
However, Howard doesn’t believe there will be any significant improvements in the technology used to preserve coffee freshness in compostable capsules over the next few years.
“Rather than substantial game-changing developments, we tend to see lots of small evolutions that gradually step up the quality and practicality of compostable capsule manufacturing.”
Despite the prominent environmental concerns that coffee pods are associated with, compostable options present a manageable solution to reduce capsule waste in the long term.
And as consumers are provided with more sustainable options, capsule sales are sure to increase at an even faster rate. But it’s ultimately the responsibility of the coffee industry to provide eco-friendly capsule alternatives.
Martin concludes: “It’s up to the industry to make sustainable capsules the norm, not the exception.”
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how fresh the coffee used is in pods.
Photo credits: Mayorga Organics
Perfect Daily Grind
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