“I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it”
The words of John Sylvan about inventing the K-cup, the original coffee pod.
Few products, that when mentioned, trigger such a visceral response to the extent of coffee pods. A product that was even banned in Hamburg, Germany, for its environmental impact, these little guys have earned themselves a bad wrap ever since they made it onto the scene way back in the 90s.
Though, the coffee pod shows no signs of slowing with global sales set to overtake those for roasted coffee by 2020. That’s a market worth more than $10 billion a year, for those playing at home.
It’s funny how something so small can have such a big impact. Who said size matters?
Jokes aside, aside from environment concerns, perhaps the humble pod also represents something deeper. Perhaps it’s reflection on our societal values, the progression of consumerism, and the willingness to sacrifice the planet for convenience.
Amidst the doom and gloom though, there is hope. But first, a little background.
Australia loves its coffee. Like, love loves its coffee.
Thirty-six per cent of us coffee drinkers consume five or more cups a day; enough for us to see through space-time and get that company report done before happy hour.
So when Nespresso hit our shores in with the promise that anyone could make a cup of espresso coffee just like a skilled barista, we went wild. These days, with a staggering 2-3 million pods consumed daily in Australia, you bet that’s also enough to put a smile of Mr. Clooney’s finely chiseled face.
You may have even read the statistic that says there are enough coffee pods in circulation today to wrap a ring around the planet six times over – equating to no less than 30 billion aluminium capsules, just from Nespresso® alone.
In a way, the pod has come a long way since its origins back in the 70s. Different flavours, colours, packaging, and now available throughout 64 countries. But in another way, in a rather fundamental way, the pod has fallen behind.
Sadly, our love affair with the coffee pod does come at a cost.
Most on the market are made from aluminium or plastic. The problem with both is that unless they’re recycled, they take around 500 years to break down, i.e., the entire duration of the Roman Empire.
“But I always put my used pods in the recycle bin!”
Okay, so here’s the thing. The filters in recycling plants struggle to recognise the pods due to their small size, so they get passed through and end up in landfill anyway. Once in landfill, often this waste is in very close proximity to water, all potentially contributing to the rising levels of BPA and other plastic chemicals found in our ground and ocean water.
Heck, hypothetically, even if they are recycled, it's a not an easy process.
The aluminium needs to be shredded, the coffee flushed away with water, the varnish needs to be burnt and aluminium re-smelted. The cost: lots of energy and lots of transportation.
What can you do then, as a concerned, coffee pod loving global citizen?
Well, there’s a few options. Let’s make a list:
Option 3) There are reusable pods. You just need to buy them, and the lids, and the ground coffee, and put the coffee into the pod, and then use pod… just like normal!
Response 3) “See Response 2”
As they say, if you really want to fix a problem, you need to go to the source. And that source is the coffee pod itself – option four, we have a winner.
Every now and again, old Mother Nature does some of the heavy-lifting for us, we just have to know how to ask for it.
The heavy lifting, in this case, comes in the form of plants.
Instead of using petrochemical based plastics or aluminium to make the pod, there’s now a plant-based alternative resulting in a 100% biodegradable and compostable pod. Even the lid is made of biodegradable paper. And yes, the pods are made to perfectly fit your Nespresso® machine and still have two-year shelf-life.
500 years to breakdown? Try six months.
Saving pods in a bag to post for recycling? Try throwing them out in normal trash, or even putting them in your garden. Coffee is a great fertiliser, you know.
Figure 1: Decomposition timeline
Whilst sometimes you can’t have all the answers as a consumer, you can always make better decisions. It is the collective responsibility of manufacturers, retailers and consumers to consider how what we produce and choose is done both ethically and sustainably.
What you buy more of, appears more.
So, with that said, let’s make sustainable products a thing. Let’s make them appear more in online, at markets, in stores, and in supermarkets. Because now, finally, there’s is a solution that allows you to enjoy your coffee pods without costing the Earth. Literally.