Coffee is undeniably one of the favorite beverages in the world. In fact, with centuries-long history, it is more than just a beverage. Many people cannot go without their cup of morning coffee that gets them going and gives them energy for the coming challenges, while others simply cannot imagine their get-togethers and chat parties without a cup of coffee on the side. In some countries, coffee functions as a social lubricant and has its own culture around it; it means it’s time for a break and relaxation. In others, it is consumed on the go but enjoyed just the same. Regardless of what our own coffee rituals are, one thing remains true, which is that coffee is consumed all around the world, and a lot.
In the US, about half the population drinks coffee every day, which equals to about 150 million coffee drinkers and 400 million cups of coffee per day. This equals to 140 billion cups of coffee consumed each year. In Australia, 75% of the population reports drinking coffee daily, and 28% of them actually consume 3 or more cups. And while coffee shop culture is rather prevalent, especially in cities like Melbourne, most of the coffee drinkers of the country (86%) actually report making their coffees at home. And while some people prefer to grind and brew their espresso the traditional way, considering that most of us have quite a hectic lifestyle nowadays, it comes as no surprise that instant methods of making coffee are ever so popular. It cannot be denied that using coffee pods and capsules is a quick and easy way to get our hot cup of joe when we are in a rush in the morning.
Thanks to their increasing popularity, today, these little capsules are produced in enormous numbers and consequently, also discarded in enormous numbers. For instance, in the UK, it is estimated that 700 million of these small plastic or aluminium objects ended up in a landfill last year. It is clear that with great commodity come great concerns from an environmental point of view. Just like with all other single-serving products, the question of waste should be on our minds here, too. Therefore, here is what you need to know about recycling coffee pods and capsules.
Coffee pods and capsules – What are they?
First of all, the difference between coffee pods and capsules should be discussed, because the two are actually different products and their recycling processes will be completely different as well. Coffee pods are flat bags of compressed coffee. They look like teabags and work similarly. They can be used in espresso machines, by placing them in a special holder inside the portafilter. They produce the same, delicious espresso that you would get by doing it all by hand, but since they are pre-portioned, you don’t have to worry about preciseness and consistency. Simply put, it’s more convenient and doesn’t leave a mess. As for coffee capsules, they are little containers of compressed coffee made out of aluminium, or out of plastic with an aluminium cover. They are used exclusively with compatible coffee makers. Sometimes, the word “pod” is also used to refer to coffee capsules, so make sure you double-check what is compatible with your coffee maker.
Recycling coffee pods
If you are a regular user of ESE (Easy Serving Espresso) coffee pods, you will be delighted to hear that they are an environmentally-friendly option. Since the coffee grounds are placed inside a biodegradable paper filter, the entire coffee pod becomes organic waste after it is used. You don’t have to separate the grounds from the filter; you can throw the entire pod as it is into the organic waste bin, just like a teabag. For this reason, coffee pods are a great in-between solution that combines the authenticity of traditionally brewed espresso and the convenience of pre-portioned instant coffee while not harming the environment by leaving behind waste.
Recycling coffee capsules
As mentioned earlier, coffee capsules’ rise in popularity led to greater quality, greater variety and greater numbers of these little capsules. Many people who have switched to capsule coffee consider it more delicious and don’t want to go back to hand-making their cup of joe. But these people also need to stay responsible and not just discard their used coffee capsules without much thought. Because of the growing necessity for eco-friendly solutions, today there are several ways in which the impact of used coffee capsules can be controlled. But this wasn’t always the case. Just a few years ago, many coffee capsules (such as famed K-Cups) were made of a type of plastic that is particularly difficult to recycle. In the last few years, however, many of the big producers of capsule coffee have made efforts to slowly transition into a completely recyclable final product.
When it comes to plastic coffee capsules, even though plastic is recyclable, you can’t just dump it in the bin. For the convenience of instant coffee, you have to pay by a few minutes of your time to separate the different materials. Firstly, you need to remove the aluminium lid, which will, obviously, go into the recycling bin for aluminium. Then, you need to remove the coffee grounds from the capsule and wash the residue off. Although you can throw the used coffee grounds in the organic waste bin, make sure you don’t get rid of them just yet as we will discuss creative uses of this waste later on. After the capsules are clean, they can go into the designated bin for plastic. While this is an extra step, it is something that is all of our responsibility if we want to enjoy our delicious cup of coffee while not feeling guilty about hurting Mother Nature.
The process for aluminium coffee capsules is much the same as for plastic ones. Before you drop your aluminium capsules in the bin, you need to wash them carefully. Aluminium is a great material as it is 100% recyclable without compromising its quality, which is why it is often used for packaging such as this, but it needs to be broken down in a specific way. Still, it’s worth going the extra mile recycling aluminium, not only because it spares the capsules from ending up in landfills but also because for recycling this material, 95% less energy is required than to produce it from scratch.
Some companies, such as Nespresso, have recognized the issue the pace at which coffee capsules are consumed creates. They now have recycling programs and specialized facilities for recycling their aluminium coffee capsules. All Nespresso capsule users need to do is find a collection point near them where they can simply drop off their used capsules. For this, they don’t even need to open up and empty their coffee capsules, as they will be emptied at the recycling facility. The coffee grounds are turned into compost while the aluminium is melted and reused. In countries such as Australia, with 19,000 collection points all over the country, everyone can find a place to drop off their capsules conveniently, but it is also possible to send your capsules back with a post by using a special satchel. Since recycling programs such as this one rely on the customers actually making the effort to get the used capsules back to the producer, it is important that all of us consumers inform ourselves and take part in it for it to work.
This is one of the possible solutions to the coffee capsule problem present today. Other companies, on the other hand, are approaching this issue from a different perspective. For instance, Lavazza has been taking steps towards more sustainable coffee capsules as well. Instead of using aluminium, they created compostable coffee capsules called “eco caps” that can be thrown into food waste bins and then composted industrially. These capsules are said to break down in 6 months, which is revolutionary when it comes to coffee capsule production. Since these specific food waste bins are not available everywhere, they also created a program called TerraCycle, where consumers are provided with a method of safely discarding their coffee capsules at designated drop-off points.
What is clear is that you can make sure you are not contributing to landfills, whether you are using coffee pods or capsules, and whether those capsules are made of plastic or aluminium. Coffee pods and capsules can be recycled but a big portion of them goes unrecycled still. In the UK, research suggests that one-third of coffee capsule users simply throw their used capsules away because they do not know how they should dispose of them. This is why you have to be informed about what you have to do as a consumer so that your delicious cup of coffee won’t weigh on Mother Nature.
While it might sound counterintuitive, as long as coffee capsules are discarded in a responsible manner, this way of packaging a single serving of coffee can be better for the environment than traditional brewing methods. Considering that coffee capsules are made in a way that they use the exact amount of coffee, water and energy needed for your cup of joe, they are actually less harmful to the environment than a traditional espresso that requires quite a lot of energy to make. That said, the sustainability of both methods of coffee making depend on the responsibility of the person making the coffee as well as on the efficiency of the machine to a degree, so the issue is more complex than it seems.
Reusing your coffee grounds
When you are done using your coffee pod or you have emptied your coffee capsules, you are left with used coffee grounds you can discard with organic waste. However, you can also reuse these coffee grounds around the house. They can be turned into compost and used in your garden – they contain plenty of nitrogen and are especially good for plants that prefer acidic soil, so make sure you throw your used coffee grounds on your compost pile. Besides compost, you can also directly use coffee grounds as fertilizer or as mulch, but even to keep certain pests away from your plants. So, if you have a green thumb, your coffee grounds can have a valuable purpose even after being used.
At this point, the environment should be on our mind whatever we are doing – and that includes when we are making our well-deserved daily cups of coffee, too. Making sure the coffee pods and capsules we use are disposed of properly and can be recycled requires little effort from our side but can bring a big change globally.