A sustainable convenience: a look at the environmental impacts of coffee capsules

Amidst much talk of an increasing level of demand for coffee, one report in March stood out as a rare occurrence of an industry leader predicting a drop. In a New York interview, Chief Executive Officer, Andrea Illy, told Bloomberg that demand for coffee could potentially decline by 1 per cent in the long term. With the International Coffee Organisation among others predicting an increasing demand for coffee, it was unusual for someone to speak of a potential drop in consumption.  The decline Illy was referring to was due to the use of single-serve systems, such as pods or coffee capsules. As coffee drinkers can make just one cup at a time, there is no longer the need to pour that extra coffee down the drain. As such, Illy was saying that less coffee wastage could lead to lower coffee consumption figures. The theory doesn’t only stand out as a rare factor that could reduce coffee consumption. It’s also one of the only environmental benefits that advocates mention in discussing the sustainability of single-serve systems. As used coffee capsules pile up in landfills and powered capsule machines increase electricity bills, the sustainability of single-serve systems is becoming a hotly debated topic. Darby Hoover, a Senior Resource Specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) out of the United States, acknowledges that limiting food wastage is perhaps one of the only advantages that coffee capsules offer from an ecological perspective. “From one environmental standpoint, that is the standpoint of wasting food, that is one issue that is somewhat addressed by these single-serve containers,” Hoover tells GCR. “But that has to be balanced against these coffee capsules that are most often made from non-renewable, fossil-fuel derived material… You have a delivery method that helps reduce food waste but on the other hand you have more packaging waste. I don’t know if the trade off is really worth it.” Hoover’s comments echo larger concerns about the extra waste produced from these systems. In some cases, aluminium discs are still being used in every capsule. Aluminium takes a large amount of energy to extract; however it is also a highly recyclable material. Unfortunately, in often ends up in landfills. Some reports say there is a higher concentration of aluminium in landfills than there is in bauxite, the ore aluminium is sourced from. There is even a term for ‘landfill mining’, when people or companies hunt for aluminium in landfills. The aluminium from coffee capsules is harder to recycle than other products, for instance soda cans, because these filters need to be separated. “Typically [coffee capsules] are made of plastic, paper, and are sealed with foil,” Hoover says. “While they may be theoretically recyclable, things that are theoretically recyclable aren’t necessarily logistically recyclable or economically recyclable.” Darby says she believes it’s up to the companies that produce capsules to come up with a solution, and consider the waste produced from their product right from the pilot phases.
“We need to start thinking about disposal when we start the design of a product,” she says. “When a manufacturer is responsible for disposal, they are more incentivised to look at if they can design a product better so it can be disassembled for recycling. Once we involve the producers in that way, we’re going to see some real change.” These are sentiments shared by Fairfood International. Spokesperson Abigail Joffre says that while the group doesn’t consider themselves to be experts on packaging, they are concerned of the waste streams being produced by the growing single-serve trend. “Coffee capsules, in general, are a response to a fashion; not based on a greater need or on sustainable growth,” Joffre says. “The capsules are high-end and high-price; therefore, if the coffee within the capsules and the packaging itself is not sustainable, then there is a definite mismatch between image and the inherent quality and sustainability of the product.” In looking at the waste stream produced by any product, Joffre says that Fairfood International asks companies in the food and beverage industry not to waste resources during production, and to inform their stakeholders on the sustainability of their products. This includes the way they can properly dispose and recycle their products in order to reduce waste impact. “Ideally, packaging should be reusable, therein creating a zero waste cycle,” she says, adding that if it’s not reusable, it should then at least be recyclable to ensure it’s properly entering the waste/recycle stream. “The worst case scenario would be that a company produces a product with byproducts which end up in a landfill, where it cannot be reused or recycled.” It can be assumed that all those capsules that aren’t being recycled are currently ending up in landfills. With over 10 billion coffee capsules sold last year, any significant percentage of that figure in a landfill would be alarming. In addition to concerns over the waste produced by single-serve machines, fears over the energy usage of coffee capsule machines have caught the eye of the Topten group, a consumer organisation that encourages energy efficient products. The organisation’s Barbara Josephy explains that of all the criteria Topten looks at to limit energy consumption, the auto-power-down function, where a machine shuts down after a period of non-use, is one of the most essential characteristics manufacturers of single-serve machines have brought on board to limit energy consumption. “Three to five years ago, we weren’t seeing any machines with auto-power-down,” Josephy says. “This was really impacting our measurements of energy usage, as we were seeing machines that were either permanently on, or were staying on for four to five hours before powering down.” Of these systems, many were operating on a boiler system. The boiler system uses the most energy, as the machine works by keeping hundreds of millilitres of water ready to brew at 80 degrees Celsius or more. “You can imagine how much energy it would take to keep that much water at 80 degrees Celsius,” Josephy explains. Major steps forward have reduced the energy usage of some machines to a fraction of what they were five years ago. The auto-power-down function on some machines is usually under half an hour, and in some cases the machine shuts down immediately after use. Many systems have also moved from a boiler system to thermo-block or flow-type heaters. In these systems, instead of using a boiler to keep several hundred millilitres of water hot, only 10 to 20 millilitres of water needs to be heated. “It’s simple physics. The less water you need to heat the less energy you use,” says Josephy. Empa eco-balance researcher Roland Hischer sought to examine the overall sustainability coffee capsules from an ecological perspective. Hischer prepared a simplified life cycle analysis using different coffee capsules. He weighed the capsules and identified the main components of the contents, and then took values from literature of average material usage and consumption during the manufacturing of the capsule. “The point of the interview was to look at plastic versus aluminium,” Hischer says. “But if you’re only looking at the materials, you’re not taking into account the most important element of the capsule: and that’s the coffee.” In the theoretical life cycle analysis, Hischer found that while the type and amount of packaging material used naturally led to more waste, the agricultural practices at origin are the biggest sinner. His preliminary findings show these practices can account for as much as 70 per cent of the environmental damage caused by a cup of coffee. In the best cases, where environmentally sustainable practices are maximised at the farm level, the value can drop to 1 per cent. This best case scenario puts the rest of the burden to limit environmental damage back on the coffee capsule and machine producers. As coffee capsules become an everyday component of many people’s lives, the NRDC’s Hoover is confident there’s time for manufacturers to take the initiative now to confront this burden. “People are starting to change their habits,” she says. “I do think, when you point out the environmental consequences associated with a behaviour, a number of customers are going to shift behaviour based on that, especially if they’re given alternatives.” 

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