The Problem With Coffee Pods
Plastic pods full of cheap coffee—why are these things considered sustainable?
There’s no denying the appeal: you remove the little rounded capsule from the box and pop it in the top of the machine, close the lid and hit go. You wait a few seconds, perhaps check your phone, and there it is—a perfectly brewed cup of coffee, with zero hassle.
Coffee pod machines are everywhere, sold by companies like Keurig, Nespresso, and countless others. They sat in the kitchens of more than 40% of US homes in 2020, and 12.6 million British households owned one in 2018. Single serve coffee machines are predicted to achieve rapid growth in Asia in the years to come, and the global market for coffee pods could hit $50 billion by 2030.
The exact number of pods produced worldwide is difficult to quantify. In 2016, one estimate says, it was 48 billion. Another article says 59 billion in 2018. Another says 39,000 coffee pods are produced every minute (something like 20 billion per year). Nespresso, the company most responsible for the popularization of the coffee pod, produces 14 billion yearly, while Keurig sells 13 billion K-cups.
Coffee pods aren’t just convenient—they’re aspirational. George Clooney sells Nespresso, oozing class as he drinks his tiny frothy beverage, given around $40 million to be the company’s global face for over a decade. Other luxury-coded actors like Penelope Cruz and Jean Dujardin have also been used to associate the brand with elegance and euro cool, while Nespresso machines started popping up in fancy hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants.
Coffee pods are not only everywhere, and increasingly popular, but some people are also trying to push the idea that they’re sustainable.
A recent study from Canada looked at the carbon footprint of various brewing methods, and found coffee pods to be the second-most efficient after instant. Pod machines, they found, were more environmentally-friendly than brewed or filter, due to the amount of coffee the latter uses and the energy taken to heat the water etc.
There was also this article in Wired UK from 2019 entitled ‘Turns out coffee pods are actually pretty good for the environment’ that argued for pods’ sustainability based on life-cycle assessments of various brew methods. Two more studies, by the environmental consultancy Quantis, also found that pods “have the least overall environmental impact when capsules are sent for recycling than the other alternatives studied” and “exhibit better environmental performance than the drip brew system in terms of the systems' full life cycles.”
Those two studies, coincidentally, were commissioned by Nespresso and a Canadian packaging association, respectively.
Most life-cycle assessment comparisons point to coffee’s production as the major emission-creation step—Nespresso’s website claims 49% of its total carbon footprint—whereas shipping, roasting, brewing, and disposing of waste are relatively minor or outweighed. But waste takes many forms, and the thing about coffee, which is hardly ever mentioned in these articles and studies, is that it’s not all grown one way.
What’s in a Pod
Some coffee is grown on giant full-sun farms in lowland or deforested areas, irrigated and sprayed with chemicals then harvested unfussily with machines, processed quickly and shipped to the lowest bidder while the waste is disposed of with indifference.
Other coffee is grown under shade on small farms by multi-generation farmers, handpicked with care, processed and sorted skilfully, and then sold to partner roasters who are willing to pay a premium for the best quality. In fact, some of those small farms are carbon sinks, locking in more carbon than they emit.
Which sort of coffee do you think ends up in coffee pods?
This is a generalization, obviously—lots of good quality coffee is sold in pods, and many big farms have reasonable environmental practices. But there’s a reason the world is burning, and it’s not the five-hectare farm selling single-lot coffee to a small local roaster.
The other part of the life-cycle argument is that pod coffee creates less waste than filter. This could be because you made a full pot and didn’t drink it, heated too much water or, weirdly, because you let the coffee beans go stale and then threw it out. That last one was from the study funded by the packaging consortium, unsurprisingly. Pods, of course, just have a little single serving of coffee, and the machine knows exactly how much water to heat. Thus, less waste.
Except for the plastic or aluminium pod itself, that is.
Much like coffee, all waste is not created equal. Coffee grounds can go in the garden or in the compost, and will add good things to the soil as they decompose. So too filters (there’s a whole other discussion to be had about bleached/unbleached and the sustainability of the forests from which they’re sourced).
A plastic coffee pod will not add good things to the soil as it decomposes (a process that can take upwards of 500 years). It will leach chemicals with very long names into the surrounding environment. Of those 39,000 pods produced each minute, 29,000 will end up in landfill. Countless others will be washed out to sea.
What about aluminium pods? Aluminium is recyclable, as Nespresso is at pains to tell us. Great! But Nespresso’s confessed recycling rate is just 32% worldwide (insert I Think You Should Leave “Oh my God he admit it!” meme). As the Guardian pointed out, a 32% recycling rate would result in 12,600 tonnes of aluminium being sent to landfill each year (external estimates put Nespresso’s recycle rate at closer to 5%).
While definitely an improvement, the arrival of compostable coffee pods shouldn’t be regarded as a panacea. Commercial composting facilities don’t exist everywhere, many municipal facilities won’t accept compostable plastics, and a recent study showed that home compostable-labeled plastics didn’t actually decompose.
We haven’t even touched on the machines themselves, of which 20.7 million were sold in the United States in 2018—rough estimates put the lifespan of a Keurig machine at 3-5 years, and Nespresso brewers up to ten (although this Reddit thread gives ranges from as little as three months). What happens when they break?
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Let’s return to recycling, touted by Nespresso as a key part of the “positive impact” the brand has made as it announced its B Corp status last year and featuring prominently on Keurig’s Sustainability webpage. Podback, a UK service that collects used coffee pods and recycles them, was created in partnership with brands like Starbucks, Tassimo and, of course, Nespresso. Recycling is clearly a cornerstone of big coffee’s eco-marketing push.
And marketing it is, because plastic recycling is essentially a lie—a myth concocted by big oil to convince the public to buy new plastic on the understanding that at the end of its life it would be recovered and turned into fresh new plastic. But this just isn’t the case. Only 10% of all the plastic ever created, some 9 billion tonnes, has been recycled. An NPR and PBS Frontline investigation in 2020 found that the oil and gas industry “sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn't work—that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled—all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic.”
The onus to recycle is always placed on the consumer—have you ever tried to figure out how to properly dispose of an oat milk carton, say, or a strawberry punnet?—allowing the companies to continue manufacturing and selling in peace. As a piece in Scientific American puts it, “we have accepted individual responsibility for a problem we have little control over. We can swim against this plastic stream with all our might and fail to make much headway. At some point we need to address the source.”
Recycling is the eye of the storm around which coffee pod manufacturers’ eco arguments revolve, and it’s a distraction. It might technically be more sustainable to use a single-use coffee pod to brew your morning coffee, depending on which study you look at and who funded it, but is this the real path to tackling climate change? Shouldn’t we be looking to reduce the amount of stuff we’re producing?
In the end there’s not much the individual can do in the face of billion-dollar corporations. We’re constantly under siege from advertising and PR that intentionally tries to keep us befuddled with tiny triangles and studies showing that plastic waste is good, actually. All we can really do is keep buying good coffee from good roasters who pay producers properly, and brew it in a careful and thoughtful manner. That, and yell at giant conglomerates every chance we get.