Little Coffee Pods Pose Giant Waste and Recycling Problems

Verismo, recycling, coffee pods
Verismo by Starbucks’ says little about its pods’ recycling

As the consumption of coffee pods surges in the U.S., so do the questions about their disposal and recycling. Although using a pod to make a cup of joe takes about the same amount of time as it does to fire up some water and then make a French press of coffee, the popularity of the single-serve coffee pod machines has taken off.

For now, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters-owned Keurig has taken the lead in the coffee pod market share race, but Nestlé’s Nespresso and Starbucks’ Verismo also fare well among java fans. All of the coffee pod machine manufacturers use flowery language on their sustainability pages to describe how they are working to make the pods’ disposal and recycling more “sustainable.” The fact is, however, that there is no differentiation in what happens to these pods after use; all of them are creating more waste.

When it comes to its products’ impact, Keurig is upfront when the company states “the manufacturing requirements of the K-Cup pack currently make recycling difficult.” The company ran life cycle analyses to gauge the environmental impact of the company’s K-Cup and Vue pods: not surprisingly, the company’s own studies found the products’ packaging “represents a fraction of the total environmental impact.” Whether the plastic in Keurig’s pods can be recycled is a crapshoot and varies by community: and of course, the coffee grounds would have to be extracted (and, in another step, composted) if pods were to avoid ending up in landfill.

Nespresso’s sustainability site is borderline vapid, proclaiming that everything responsibly possible has been done “from the cherry to the cup.” The company’s “Ecolaboration” United Kingdom site lists four locations in London (three of them at Selfridges, one at a Nespresso “boutique”) where consumers can drop off their used pods, as if most Brits could be bothered tucking them in a purse or rucksack as they take the Tube across town. Like its competitors, Nestlé says when it comes to carbon emissions and sustainability, it is “committed,” which is also the word I would use to describe anyone who thinks these coffee pods are a great idea in the first place. On the company’s U.S. site, there is no mention of anything remotely smacking of sustainability at all, but plenty of marketing MBA gibberish about “innovation” and “the ultimate coffee experience.”

Finally, we have Starbucks’ Verismo. While these machines’ long-term success is yet to be determined, the company has succeeded in inspiring the best Saturday Night Live advertisement spoof in years. When it comes to its pods’ disposal, Starbucks also passes the buck, answering FAQs with mostly a “maybe.” When it comes to the machines’ eventual fate, the company is a little more informative, though based on how the page was edited, not much thought was given to addressing questions related to sustainability:

In “name country here,” Starbucks has contracted with the following organizations to facilitate the compliance with WEEE regulations, and to enable our customers to appropriately dispose of and recycle their electrical brewing equipment – Starbucks Verismo Recycling FAQ Page

Some companies claim they are going the extra mile when it comes to their pods. Illy has a “Renew” program that involves consumers shipping the used pods to TerraCycle, which downcycles them into building materials. A Treehugger writer mocked the idea for the ridiculous process involving shipping plastic and coffee grounds across the country. And Canterbury Coffee, Canada’s second largest coffee chain, claims it has a biodegradable coffee pod in the pipeline.

Nevertheless, billions of pods are ending up in landfills because of the notion that making a pot of coffee is inconvenient and wasteful. The same consumers who fall for the quick coffee pod are the same ones who will not be bothered to drop off used ones at a store nor will they drop them off in the mail. And so we are stuck trying to find answers to one of the most wasteful products to hit the market since bottled water.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

[Image credit: Starbucks]

Leon Kaye

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He is currently Executive Editor of 3p, and is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). He's traveled worldwide and has lived in Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

8 responses

  1. This is an important sustainability issue, but FYI – you can recycle Nespresso pods at Sur la Table stores and the company has just started a mail recycling program in CA & NY.

  2. does pod coffee encourage use of ceramic cups or is it a doubly wammy bad for the environment Pod + Disposable Cup?

  3. The power of human laziness is amazing. How hard is it to scoop some fresh beans into a chemex? I do it every morning…

  4. We have been recycling the Nespresso pods at the Nespresso shop n Brussels but we are switching back to an old Senseo machine as those pods are made of paper and can go in the compost directly.

  5. Which is worse: disposable pods or surplus coffee that is thrown out because someone made too much? Has anyone done an LCA on this? I’m guessing that there’s a break-even point when the extra wasted beans from the overbrewed pot of coffee exceeds the negative externalities of the pod waste. Where’s Pablo Paster when I need him?

    1. Interesting. Worthy of a proper analysis (unlike mine below).

      I doubt it’s break even. The wasted coffee simply becomes compost. The other possible side effects being too much coffee grown, too much coffee transported and too much packaging being used. On the other side, each pod (coffee + packaging) will be heavier (due to an poor packaging/contents ratio), and thus will require more energy to transport than the equivalent bagged coffee. They also involve a wasteful use of aluminium (a very energy expensive metal) and clearly will not pack efficiently, due to their shape.

      Additional negatives to capsules include:
      -they cut out the small coffee producers
      -they funnel the cash paid straight to the top.. to companies such as Nestle and their executives.
      -they increase the premium paid by consumers to the distributer, but not the grower.
      -the are very unlikely to support sustainable farming
      -they are a symptom of and also promote a non mindful, instant ‘gratification’ society

    2. stupid comment. If you buy an ethical coffee you are supporting a farmer. So using more of his coffee is helping his family.

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