Sales of coffee pods are booming, but the planet pays a price for our love of convenience. Fortunately, there might be a way to have great coffee quickly, without harming the environment. With UK Coffee Week kicking off this week, Tom Banham explores the true cost of our coffee addiction.
George Clooney has a lot to answer for. As the face of Nespresso, Nestlé’s revolutionary single-serve coffee system, he’s encouraged us to buy billions of pods a year which, once used, almost all find their way into landfill.
Coffee: a global addiction
Nespresso’s popularity is understandable. Coffee is a global addiction and in Britain it’s catching up on tea; we get through around 95m cups of java every day, compared to around 165m brews. The bulk of our coffee consumption – roughly 65 per cent – happens at home. But as our taste for coffee grows, our willingness to put up with the crappy stuff has waned; only 20 per cent of people drink instant coffee more than once a day. A proportion that drops by more than half for people in their early twenties.
Our palates have improved since the instant coffee boom of the 1970s, but our impatience remains. Which is why pod machines, with their promise of a ‘proper’, mess-free coffee in less time than it takes to boil the kettle, have mushroomed.
In 2016, The Grocer reported that coffee pod machines feature in almost a third of British kitchens. Brits spent £112m on pods in 2015, a number set to treble by 2020. By that point – brace yourself – we might be spending more on coffee pods than tea bags.
Convenience at a cost
But as we should have learnt long ago, convenience has a cost. Coffee pods are generally made from either multi-layered plastic, or resin-coated aluminium. Once you’ve popped them in the bin, neither disappears quickly.
Nespresso’s Coffee Capsules take 150 years to decompose
Aluminium hangs around in landfill for around 150 years, plastic for more than three times as long. Nespresso knocks out 28bn of the things a year, in which time US market-leader Keurig manufactures enough pods to circle the globe 12 times. It’s clear that our coffee pod habit has a bitter aftertaste.
Nespresso claims its aluminium pods are recyclable, which is partly true – you can either take them to one of the brand’s boutiques or post them to one of its processing centres. But you can’t pop them straight in your recycling bin, because the mixed materials aren’t accepted by most UK plants. You could decant the grounds from each into a compost bin, then separate the pod from it’s lid and liner, but by this point a convenient coffee has become more work than a pour-over.
The inside of a pod machine is a hot, high-pressure place, which means less robust – read: compostable – materials have never been an option. Until now.
A new breed of compostable coffee pods
A new breed of cornstarch-based pods have been developed that are stable enough not to melt in your machine, but will also breaks down quickly in landfill. Specialty roaster Volcano Coffee Works has been among the first to adopt this eco-friendly tech, creating pods that mean you can enjoy its award-winning coffee conveniently, without harming the planet.
Volcano’s coffee pods are 100% compostable
Currently, Volcano’s pods take just 90 days to decay in landfill. The big brands don’t currently use the tech because compostable materials are porous. “Air can get in and turn the coffee stale, but it takes around six months before you’ll notice a difference in the taste.”
Considering how long Nespresso’s pods sit on supermarket shelves, that’s not an option. But because Volcano roasts its coffee in small batches, its pods don’t hang around long enough to decrease in quality. You get great taste, ease-of-use and a clean conscience.
For eco-friendly, fully compostable coffee pods go to farmdrop.com.
Fairtrade, Organic, Rainforest Alliance? What does it all mean? Here are the biggest coffee buzzwords, busted.
This post was originally published in November 2018 and has since been updated.