In the wake of Nespresso machines and their hammer Clooney marketing, coffee pods machines are a huge success. Convenient, modern, and provide everyone with an affordable solution to get a high quality coffee. It is common to offer a Nespresso machine to your father to replace his old drip coffee. However, studies pointed out how those coffee pods come with some environmental side effects due to the volume of aluminium and plastic thrown away. Despite that, it seems coffee pods have a not so negative impact due to the economy in coffee beans they allow.
Coffee pods are popular
Coffee pods are more popular than ever. Before that, to have a coffee cup, you either needed to prepare a pot of coffee, or go to a café. With the pod machine, insert a pod, wait 1 minute and voilà. Thanks to a proper marketing campaign with George Clooney, Nespresso created a widespread taste for good espresso. Affordable, it is not. Coffee pods have a high price, and were originally only available in Nespresso shops. This elitist system actually helped creating the image of a high-end experience. The machine itself is pretty cheap, giving the idea that it is affordable, but coffee in pods can cost as much as 10 times the price of coffee beans. More regular drinkers know that having an espresso machine comes with a higher upfront investment but on the medium term it is worth it.
Other coffee machine and beans producers soon came out with their own solutions. The capsule coffee has been growing steadily since.
Using all these non-reusable capsules has created a huge amount of waste. In an article by the Guardian, Marc Gunther analyzes,
if most of the aluminum ends up in landfills, that tell us something important about Nespresso – that its recycling efforts, however well-intentioned, are failingMarc Guther, the Guardian
Analysis by Nescafé itself about the environmental impact of coffee pods don’t focus on recycling, and consider recycling to happen outside of the coffee production and consumption chain. Nescafé considers it a public problem in general, and a consumer problem in particular, which is a terribly cynical view of the responsibility of corporations in society.
A positive note
However environmental impact of capsule coffee has different faces. Apart from the metal waste, coffe pods allow a limited use of coffee. The dose is fixed and water is boiled in exactly the necessary quantity for the cup, there is less waste there.
A Wired article sums up this side of coffee pods with the excessive title of coffee pods turning out to be good for the environment. Under this provocative title, it breaks down some ten years old studies showing that other coffee consumption methods cause coffee waste. The production of coffee uses a lot of water, which causing some environmental damage in intensive production areas. It also brings societal impact in some places like South Sudan where water is scarce. Reducing the amount of coffee used in a cup directly saves a lot of water. A standard cup of coffee has required 130 L of water. If 20% of coffee is saved each time, then 26L of water are saved in water sensitive areas, which is non negligible.
Coffee has a high impact on environment. The increased consumption of coffee indeed requires more water for coffee agriculture. However pods add material (aluminium and plastic) pollution to that while saving some water on the bean production side.
The best solution would therefore be the re-usable coffee pod. If done properly, without any excess coffee added in the pod, it then brings the best of all worlds: a good espresso taste, water and bean efficiency, and no aluminium pollution. However it is unclear if adding ground coffee to the pod can be done precisely and without waste; otherwise, a real espresso machine is still the best bet for environmentally aware coffee drinkers.