Smile Beverage Werks on making single serve coffee more sustainable

Smile Beverage Werks

Smile Beverage Werks has developed a high-quality compostable coffee capsule and is sharing its turnkey sustainable single-serve solution with the American coffee industry.

The K-Cup is far and away the most popular single serve coffee capsule in the United States, with approximately one in four homes owning a Keurig capsule brewer. In 2020 alone, market analyst Information Resources estimated that three million new households became users of the Keurig coffee system, bringing the total number of households to 33 million.

Despite the success of Keurig, its founder and K-Cup inventor John Sylvan told The Atlantic in 2015 that he “feels bad sometimes” for ever creating it due to the waste that K-Cups and single serve coffee generates.

Smile Beverage Werks has set out to change that.

“Single-use plastic pods are the number three cause of single-use plastic pollution in North America. Fifteen billion are made per year, and less than 1 per cent get recycled, which means more than 14 billion are getting wasted every year,” Smile Beverage Werks Co-founder Michael Sands tells Global Coffee Report.

Discovering a plant-based compostable material that had been applied to Nespresso systems in Europe, Sands and co-founder Frankie Schuster acquired the rights to the technology for use in the Americas and began developing it to work with Keurig machines.

“It wasn’t as easy as taking what they had created in Europe and launching it in the US. Keurig machines brew coffee in a very different way to Nespresso,” Sands explains.

“For instance, K-Cups are multi-layered with a filter inside, so it took about two years of research and development to apply the technology in a new format and achieve the necessary certifications.”

Smile Beverage Werks’ capsules are certified as commercially compostable by the Biodegradable Products Institute in the US and DinCertco in Europe and as a bio-based product by the United States Department of Agriculture. Furthermore, the company is climate neutral certified through Climate Partners and sources Rainforest Alliance certified coffee.

Sands says this is all to reassure its customers and end consumers that Smile’s products are the best possible for the environment.

“The third wave is growing stronger and people are getting excited about coffee, especially among Millennials and Generation Z. But if you know about good coffee, you also probably know about the impact pods have on the environment,” he says. “Take away that issue and it opens up a whole super-premium segment of the market and, at the same time, brews a better cup of coffee.”

What separate Smile from other commercially compostable pods, according to Sands, is that they are made of plant-based material rather than petroleum-based plastic. This means they breakdown earlier when commercially composted and, if they end up in landfill, will biodegrade faster than traditional compostable capsules, without leaking harmful chemicals into the soil or water.

Sands adds the material’s unique formulation provides the capsules with greater structural integrity and freshness preservation than typical compostable coffee capsules. The plant-based material also serves as an advantage in terms of quality, not impacting the flavour of the coffee inside as much as conventional plastic.

“The capsule is designed so the filter process lasts six seconds longer, which results in a better cup of coffee,” he says, comparing a brewed Smile coffee to a French Press. “It means a high-end roaster could put something they usually wouldn’t in a capsule – like a great Geisha coffee – and it will taste great.”

Smile Beverage Werks launched its own house brand – Smile Coffee Werks – in late 2020, which is now available through major retailers such as Walmart and Amazon.

“We are the fastest growing compostable brand on Amazon,” Sands days.

“Because of COVID, home consumption of coffee has gone through the roof. On the other hand, without travel the office and hotel segments fell way off. Last year was a crazy anomaly, where volume shifted from one market to another, but now all these people with new brewers on their kitchen counter will continue to use them, and hotels, offices, and foodservice are coming back fast. Offering all of these markets better and more environmentally friendly coffee will only help them continue to grow.”

Smile Beverage Werks is not keeping this technology to itself, and offers private label and co-packing services to the coffee industry, major retailers, and anyone else interest in selling a sustainable coffee product.

“We provide a turnkey solution that helps high-end roasters to enter new markets without worrying about the environmental impact and larger corporations to meet their sustainability goals,” Sands says.

“Everybody in the coffee industry is talking about sustainability and making sure they have responsibly sourced coffee. But it’s not enough to just say you are making sure people are paid fairly. That responsibly sourced coffee needs to be responsibly packaged in a way that’s good for the environment.”

Smile Beverage Werks is also capable of producing coffee products in similarly compostable ground or wholebean coffee bags and Nespresso compatible alternatives. It can even share its trademarked green Keurig-compatible capsule colour with customers to denote the capsule’s compostability.

“We’re in deep conversations with many businesses, from major retailers to respected coffee brands, and will see these projects come to market in the next few months,” Sands says.

“Many companies have made commitments towards sustainability and reducing single-use plastic waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Many of these targets are set for 2025, and Smile Beverage Werks provides a quick, easy, and feasible way to reach them.”

However, it’s not enough for a solution to be simple for the corporation. It needs to work for the consumer too, which Sands says the is advantage of composting over recyclable options.

“People drink capsules because they’re convenient, so we need to keep it that way when they’re disposing of them,” Sands says. 

“When it comes to recycling K-Cups, you need to fully pull a part and separate the plastic capsule, aluminium lid, paper filter, and coffee grounds. Even then, that lid can’t be recycled because it’s too small a piece of aluminium. The process gets messy and time consuming, so the consumer isn’t recycling them even when they can.”

Still a young company, Sands says there are many avenues for the growth and expansion, sharing its sustainable service and message with a Smile.

“We’ve even taken the material we use to make our capsules and are using it to create home compostable straws – the number two single-use plastic problem in the US,” Sands says.

“For us, coffee is only the beginning – we look to be the leader in environmentally friendly packaging across the food and beverage market.”

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This article was first published in the September/October edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.

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