Sustainability meets quality with UCC Coffee EkoPod capsule

With EkoPod, UCC Coffee has crafted a sustainable coffee capsule that can be composted at home, without compromising on freshness or quality.

The coffee industry looks very different heading into 2021 than it did even just a year ago. COVID-19 has seen many people replacing their café runs with coffee made at home.

David Alexander, National Account Controller at UCC Coffee UK and Ireland, says this has led to a surge in demand for retail coffee products, from roast and ground coffee bags to single-serve pods and capsules.

“People’s working habits are evolving and the way in which we all consume [coffee] has changed, but our need for coffee each day hasn’t,” Alexander says.

“When you’re consuming at home, you become much more aware of the waste you’re generating, so offering a fully sustainable option is becoming more and more important.”

UCC Coffee’s operations in Europe include private label coffee capsule services, but over the last few years it has seen increasing demand for a sustainable alternative to single-use disposable capsules.

“In the UK, sustainable options are now expected by consumers rather than being ‘nice to have’,” Alexander says.

Finding the options already on the market lacking when it came to combining sustainability with coffee quality and freshness, UCC Coffee Europe set out to find its own sustainable coffee capsule solution.

“Some companies, including UCC, have introduced aluminium capsules, which is a recyclable solution. However, only 20 to 30 per cent of these capsules are actually recycled by consumers, and the recycling process goes through various energy-consuming steps,” says Luigi Ceccarelli, R&D and Innovation Director for UCC Coffee.

“At the end of the day, it’s a more environmentally friendly solution, but it’s not a complete solution.”

While there were several compostable capsules available, the only ones that UCC found were high quality and reliable enough required industrial composting, something unavailable to most consumers throughout Europe. In places with access to industrial composting, many facilities still turn away capsules because they can’t tell what is and isn’t compostable.

With this in mind, UCC Coffee turned its attention to how it could produce a home compostable capsule with a reliable and consistent performance. Using a unique top lid sealing technology that keeps coffee quality and freshness preserved, UCC Coffee has launched the EkoPod.

EkoPod is certified ‘OK compost HOME’ by TÜV Austria, the European standard for compostable products. Just like an apple core, the Nespresso compatible capsules can be put straight into a home compost heap, food waste bin, or garden bin to decompose naturally.

“EkoPod is certified to be biodegradable within one year in standard temperature and humidity conditions. It’s the ultimate environmentally friendly solution for people that want to impact less on the environment,” Ceccarelli says.

“As well as being sustainable, this solution had to be a viable way to brew a good cup of coffee. Many existing home compostable capsules aren’t well protected from oxygen, so in most cases, the coffee you brew is stale. We spent two years fixing the technical limitations of this type of capsule.”

UCC Coffee’s new capsule lid is created using three different layers of cellulose – filter paper and cellulose film – and securely sealed through the application of pressure at a precise temperature, without the use of any chemicals. This means, unlike other compostable capsules, EkoPod is airtight – keeping coffee freshness locked in for up to nine months.

“The top lid seal reliability was the biggest challenge we had to face on this pod. You do not want to add oil-based lacquers or chemicals and must rely on just temperature, pressure, and contact time in order to seal the lid on top of the body,” Ceccarelli says.

“It is very difficult to find the right process combination of these three factors, and it took us a long time to do so. Now, we can guarantee 99.9 per cent of [our] capsules are well sealed.”

UCC Coffee will begin the roll out of EkoPod with some of its longstanding partners, which have been involved in and followed the development of the home compostable EkoPod capsule.

“Our customers have been very understanding and patient through this process. It’s been a long journey and we’re excited to launch EkoPod with those that have taken the journey with us,” Alexander says.

“Ultimately, it’s also about giving the consumer a great in-cup experience and EkoPod can deliver on coffee quality as well as sustainable standards.”

EkoPod forms a key part of UCC Coffee Europe’s overall sustainability strategy, which extends from the product’s end of life to how the coffee is sourced and grown.

Alexander says coffee retailers have different priorities when it comes to sustainably, so it’s important UCC Coffee takes a holistic approach.

“We look at not just the home compostability of these capsules, but the sustainability and transparency of the coffee going into them. For us, it’s about taking EkoPod and UCC’s general overview of sustainability and talking about their features and benefits to customers,” he says.

“There are some retailers in the UK, for example, where certifications are not on their key list of priorities, while for others, it’s right up at the top. We need to understand each individual customer’s requirements.”

Across Europe, particularly in the North, UCC Coffee has seen growing demand for certifications like Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, and Fairtrade.

Ceccarelli says this comes from the same sustainable drive that pushed UCC to develop EkoPod.

“Everybody is looking for more environmental solutions, and we expect more and more companies will embrace those options in the near future,” he says.

With convenience the key reason for single serve coffee taking off over the last decade, Ceccarelli says EkoPod breaks the barrier stopping many people from using capsules.

“Convenience is why consumers moved from traditional coffee to single serve, accepting it is more expensive per cup. But there is a large part of the market that is not considering buying capsules because they’re concerned about the impact on the environment. EkoPod eliminates this issue, making capsules an option for more consumers,” Ceccarelli says.

“You should never forget, however, that consumers also buy a capsule because they want a consistent and superior coffee.

“Anytime anyone has launched a solution that does not deliver a good in-cup end result, it has been a failure. This is where EkoPod succeeds.”

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