May 5th, 2017

Grounds for concern: the problem of coffee capsules

8 minute read

by Mark Hilton and Daniel Card


With an estimated two billion cups consumed every day, coffee is one of the world’s most popular drinks and has been the fuel for countless projects, essays – and Isonomia blogs. In the UK, the average person consumes 1.7kg of coffee per year. This is less than residents of many of our European neighbours, but still equates daily nationwide consumption of some 70 million cups, with spending in coffee shops now exceeding £3bn per year.

The coffee industry is no stranger to environmental controversies, which can arise throughout the supply chain. There are well-rehearsed concerns about deforestation and consumption of water and other resources associated with coffee plantations, while the preparation and transport of the beans results in carbon emissions. The environment continues to bear the brunt of our caffeine habit right through to the point of consumption. The the latest area of concern and controversy is our growing use of coffee capsules or ‘pods’. But are such concerns justified, and how could they be addressed?


Instant gratification

Some 80% of British households regularly purchase coffee, and our habit of drinking it at home helps to keep the environmental impacts of its consumption in check. Around 50% of a café-bought coffee’s carbon footprint arises from operations of the café itself. This is hardly surprising when you consider:

  • the number of machines a café uses – blenders, grinders, toasters and the like
  • the long opening hours
  • the waste cafes produce, such as disposable plastic milk containers and the ubiquitous disposable coffee cups that have become lately become a prominent issue.


Historically, UK householders tended opt for instant coffee, but over recent years other methods of consumption have taken hold. Freeze dried granules lost ground to the cafetières and stovetop espresso pots – while the coffee obsessive can spend hundreds of pounds on a café-style machine. There is an increasing trend, though, towards machines that employ single-use capsules.

These capsules pose their own particular environmental challenges, especially around the use and disposal of packaging. The sheer amount of packaging used is extraordinary; a typical filter coffee bag weighs 7g and holds 227g of coffee – a ratio of 1:32. A coffee capsule typically contains around 6g of coffee in 3g of packaging – a ratio of just 1:2.

That said, even in a pod system, growing, roasting, transporting and brewing the coffee vastly outweighs the impacts of the packaging. In their favour, coffee capsules fix the quantity of grounds used, avoiding the risk of coffee waste – although a regular filter machine also takes a fixed amount of coffee and even cafetières need not waste coffee if a dosing scoop is used sensibly.


Collected works?

The real problem stemming from the excessive use of packaging in coffee capsules is the lack of viable end of life alternatives to disposal. Most capsules have an aluminium or polypropylene body with a plastic film lid, and in theory can be recycled. In practice, however, most UK local authorities do not collect them due to the mix of materials, concerns over size in relation to sorting equipment, and contamination from coffee grounds. This has led to poor recycling rates, even of the theoretically easier to recycle aluminium pods favoured by the market-leading brand Nespresso.

Part of the Nestlé empire, Nespresso has the stated aim of providing capacity to collect 100% of their capsules for recycling – a laudable goal on first reading, and certainly enough to buy environmental credibility in the eyes of some media. However, its recycling scheme relies on consumers separating the capsules from other household waste, and sending them back to Nespresso either via a special doorstep collection or through designated collection points.

Expecting a high level of engagement with individual recycling schemes of this type seems unrealistic –  separating single, small items (not just coffee pods; the same applies to composite food pouches, contact lens cases etc.) and taking or posting them to a collection point will mainly appeal to ‘deep green’ consumers. Zero Waste Europe has stated that “it is unlikely that [the] recycling [rate] will go beyond 25%”, while much lower rates are thought to be currently achieved in some countries.


Coffee Pods

Coffee order: how can capsules be accommodated within mainstream recycling? Photo: Rachel Andrew (CC BY-NC 2.0), via Flickr.


In the UK Nespresso has, however, just announced a trial in which the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council will collect capsules on the company’s behalf, alongside other household recycling. Residents will still need to use a special purple bag supplied by the company, and won’t be able to recycle other brands’ capsules. It will be interesting to see whether this approach will bear fruit, or indeed, what might happen if all sorts of other brands were to seek to adopt the same approach.

Despite its large investment in recycling, Nespresso still doesn’t report the actual figures. Some have called it ‘greenwash’, intended only to delay the spread of regulation, like Hamburg’s ban on coffee pods in state-run buildings as part of a drive to reduce waste. Even the man behind the US coffee-pod revolution, John Sylvan, regrets his invention; “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it”. Former Nespresso CEO, Jean-Paul Gaillard, who now heads the competitor Ethical Coffee Company, has said that aluminium coffee capsules “will be a disaster and it’s time to move on that. People shouldn’t sacrifice the environment for convenience.”


Pods green earth?

Because of the difficulties of separating pods at source, some have sought ways to deal with them in mainstream recycling collections. A much-trumpeted solution is the compostable coffee capsule, which might allow them – and the grounds they contain – to be included in household food waste or green waste collections.

However, this solution is not without problems. Compostable capsules are generally made from polylactic acid (PLA), which is only suitable for industrial composting. The lesson of PLA bottles is that PLA items are difficult for consumers to distinguish from other, non-compostable packaging. The result could well be that items are placed in the wrong bin, resulting in contamination and rejects, whether at composting facilities or recycling plants.

Many supermarkets and catering contractors have moved away from bio-degradable packaging for these reasons, and few if any local authority collections accept bio-plastics in food waste collections. In the unlikely event that pods can be made home compostable, it may not really result in them being composted. The majority of people do not home compost, so the residual waste bin would remain a likely destination for these products.

The picture looks fairly bleak. If mainstream consumers won’t use schemes set up for coffee capsules, and attempts to fit capsules into the existing kerbside collection systems have hit significant issues, what can be done?


Positive PR

There appear essentially to be two options. One is to more strongly incentivise customer engagement with the current bespoke takeback schemes, for example through a deposit refund approach – but this could be costly and complex to administer for such a small waste stream. The other is to deal with the items within mainstream kerbside dry recycling.

If capsules are to become part of mainstream dry recycling, the key issue is how to enable sorting systems to cope with them – no easy task. At a minimum, that is going to entail adaptations to current sorting machinery and perhaps some sort of product tagging to allow easy identification, all of which will be expensive. If local authorities were to be the ones driving forward capsule recycling, they would be left footing the bill. That’s unlikely to make financial sense for councils, particularly under current financial constraints. Instead, there’s a clear role for producer responsibility (PR).

The EU-wide PR system for packaging ensures that coffee manufacturers contribute to the costs of recycling. However, the UK does not require producers to meet the full costs of collection and recycling, and there is no means to properly differentiate the fees producers pay according to the difficulty of recycling a particular product. There appears to be a role for a more refined system that modulates producer fees according to the net impact of the broad packaging type (e.g. composite polymers and contaminated materials) across the lifecycle, elements of which are already in place in France. It should also account for product and packaging impacts, especially in manufacture.

Variable PR charges of this kind would help to:

  • increase costs for products whose packaging is more difficult to recycle, encouraging switching to alternatives that are more easily recycled; and
  • finance collection and sorting systems properly, increasing the chances that items such as coffee pods can be accommodated in mainstream recycling.


There are, however, likely to be some difficulties in doing this in the existing market for compliance in the UK.

We also need to ensure that packaging is designed so as to facilitate separation and recycling. The existing Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations are weak and not properly enforced. The European Commission’s circular economy package begins to address some of these issues, such as differentiated charges taking the whole lifecycle into account, but its final form remains to be seen – as do its implications for a post-Brexit UK.

The challenge of coffee pods highlights the problem posed by every new, consumer-friendly-but-hard-to-recycle product that appears on the market. We need a system that places the onus on producers to take responsibility for the whole lifecycle of their products, right from the outset. We, and colleagues at Eunomia, are actively working on ideas to amend the current system with a view to achieving this objective, and extending the principles beyond packaging.


Mark Hilton and Daniel Card


Mark Hilton


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RobertDavid DawMark HiltonTed JohnsonJane Bickerstaffe Recent comment authors

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We should all strongly consider reusable capsules as well even if we use them just half of the time we can hep reduce the impact that coffee capsules are having on the environment, we found which work well with Nespresso machines.

David Daw
David Daw

Interestingly coffee pods are not actually defined as ‘packaging’ in the Packaging Directive? In Annex 1 it lists them as one example of non-packaging. It states ‘where Beverage system coffee capsules, coffee foil pouches, and filter paper coffee pods disposed together with the used coffee product’ are not packaging. So therefore only need to be counted if contents dissolve. This appears to follow a similar exclusion for tea bags which perform a similar function. In practice I suspect they are often being reported as packaging by producers.

Jane Bickerstaffe

There are other environmental impacts of pods versus other ways of making coffee. Pods use a measured amount of water and no more. This means no energy is wasted on heating more water than is actually used.
There’s another disposal option – incineration with energy recovery.
As always there are pros and cons of all options but all factors need to be considered.

Ted Johnson

Jane: I am not sire everyone is up on the latest technology to divert waste products from coffee processors, such as Brosa, sludge, bean skins, and contaminated water. Plus you have all the energy needed to run the plant,. The Brosa, skins, and sludge can be separated, and dried to make a very clean fuel, almost enough to run the processing plant. This also diverts all that from landfills,and requires hardly and fossil fuel usage.if you had to use it to pick up the difference in energy needed in the plant. Beyond all that, you can also use the residues… Read more »

Mark Hilton
Mark Hilton

Jane – thanks for your comment. In the article, we were careful to talk about “the residual waste stream”, rather than making assumptions about how residual waste might be treated. However, if pods go to EfW, it is not clear that this is a big improvement over landfill. Incinerating plastic is a poor option from an environmental perspective. The market leading aluminium pods are very carbon intensive unless the waste is recycled, and have no calorific value to make incineration worthwhile. Equally, landfilling biodegradable pods doesn’t yield very good results. We do touch on the important issue of dosing in… Read more »