Are coffee pods bad for the environment?
At Tripod, we primarily offer planet-positive coffee pods. Our compostable pods and composting services help ease the environmental burden coffee pods have been imposing. In this post, we're exploring the facts and figures on how bad coffee pods really are for the planet.
You might be surprised.
Oh, and if you want to calculate your personal coffee carbon footprint, just scroll to the bottom of this article.
What are coffee pods made from?
Most coffee pods are made out of a mix of aluminium and plastic (and coffee, of course!). They are essentially pre-portioned amounts of ground coffee encased in a little “pod” that you put into a pod coffee machine, and it dishes out the perfect amount of coffee at the push of a button. Pretty neat!
But what about waste?
You might think: cool, plastic and aluminium can be recycled, and coffee can be composted! Well, unfortunately neither material can be recycled in your everyday bins. Nespresso® pods require a separation of the coffee and a small amount of rubber, and the plastic pods require removal of all coffee and typically aluminium lids before being accepted into a facility.
This difficulty to recycle means that an estimated 3 million pods are sent to landfill everyday in Australia.
To be clear, this is bad for the environment.
Why do big companies use aluminium?
Aluminium is used as the primary material in many coffee pods including the global leader Nespresso®. They argued that it is "sustainable" because is can be recycled. But it needs to actually be recycled in one a specific facility. Also, aluminium pods themselves have a 2.4x higher carbon footprint than certified compostable ones due to being made a mined and finite resource (instead of plants). Aluminium also allows companies to package their coffee pods to extend the shelf life, which is a benefit when pods are shipped around the world and sit in stores or warehouses.
What's the deal with certified compostable pods?
If compostable pods are composted correctly, then they can be near zero waste. Although, you need to be very careful because many pods claim to be biodegradable and compostable, but in-fact contain aluminium lids and do not meet Australian Certified Compostable standards, meaning no facility in Australia can actually compost them.
When buying compostable pods, look for these signs:
1. Australian certified compostable (the EU certifications are not accepted here).
2. Look for a clear returns program.
3. Look at the product - if the lid looks shiny and like aluminium, it is not compostable.
4. Beware of the word "biodegradable" — it's often used as a green washing mechanism. Especially the term "oxo-biodegradable", this means it is essentially plastic.
Compared to filter/espresso
‘So just use filter coffee!’ some might argue. But experts are finding that even with the extra materials involved, pods might still be one of the most sustainable ways of drinking coffee.*
This is because from the farm to your kitchen, coffee beans have a pretty hefty environmental impact. Growing coffee can see a lot of greenhouse gas emissions, water, and fertiliser use. So when you have a pod, which, compared to filter coffee and typical espresso methods, uses a pretty small amount of coffee (pods contain about 5-6 grams of coffee versus a filter coffee has 16-20 grams), you’re actually affecting climate change less, even with the waste of a coffee pod.
If you compost or throw your grounds in the garden, you will definitely reduce your landfill waste, but not necessarily reduce your carbon footprint.
Personally, I believe, if you had to choose pods that go to landfill but have a smaller carbon footprint or grounds that can be composted but have a lower footprint, I would choose grounds. Why? With carbon offsetting options, you can neutralise your footprint, but you can never remove your trash from landfill.
Luckily with Tripod, you can choose pods and still not contribute to landfill :)
So what's the most sustainable way to drink coffee?
If you drink pods, buy pods that can be composted and compost them or use ground beans and compost them. The sad truth is that anything nearly nothing in landfills breaks down: coffee grounds, compostable materials, paper, plastic, nothing.
If you drink espresso/filter, be sure to toss your grounds in the garden or compost to minimise landfill waste.
Luckily, Tripod makes it super easy to drink pods and be sure they're composted correctly via our Pod-to-Plant™ returns program. Our programs makes it free for customers to mail their used pods or have us collect them. We compost our pods with other organic material to produce nutrient-rich fertiliser and a gas that gets converted to grid energy! It’s easy to enjoy your coffee at home when you know it not only tastes good, it does good, too :)
If you're after that promo-code we mentioned in our email it's TRIPODGOOD25 (ts&cs: good for one Starter Pack, can only be used one time per customer, expires 7th-August-2021).
Find out more about how we're Australia's most sustainable coffee company:
*Alf Hill, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Bath