Can Coffee Capsules be a Sustainable Choice?
July 15, 2020

Can Coffee Capsules be a Sustainable Choice?

Much has been written about the wasteful nature of coffee capsules, with references being made to the huge plastic waste they generate. But, our journey to create a Spiller & Tait coffee capsule has helped us realise capsules can be a very sustainable coffee making method when the pods are easily recycled.


Green campaigners have been critical of the widespread adoption of coffee capsules around the world, with particular criticism levelled at the vast quantities of plastic waste generated by the capsule coffee makers. According to recent research by Halo, a British producer of compostable coffee capsules, every minute about 39,000 of these pods are made worldwide, while up to 29,000 are dumped in landfill sites. This doesn’t sound sustainable!  


However, over the last three years, while we’ve been trying to create a Spiller & Tait capsule, we’ve learned quite a lot about the pros and cons of this method of making coffee, including some of the sustainable benefits of certain types of capsules. As a coffee making method, we were surprised to learn that, compared to other methods, capsules offer a relatively sustainable approach. To understand the full environmental impact of coffee making, it’s important to conduct a life-cycle assessment for the full range of coffee making methods. Alf Hill, Professor of Chemical Engineering at The University of Bath, has studied all the stages of coffee production, from growing the beans to disposal of waste, assessing the impact on ecosystems, climate change and water.


This study found that instant coffee actually comes out best, but that capsules are the runner up in terms of environmental impact. Filter, or drip coffee comes third, while traditional espresso has the worst environmental impact. Professor Hill said “the impact, such as greenhouse gas emissions, water and fertiliser use, mostly occurs where the coffee is grown. Capsules tend to need less coffee input to make a single drink and so their overall impact can be lower, even though we see more waste when we throw them away."  


Other recent studies suggest there is an emerging consensus that supports Hill’s findings. After the environmental impact of growing beans, the second biggest environmental impact is the energy it takes to brew coffee. That’s why the barista-made espresso comes out quite badly in terms of its environmental impact. A lot of energy is needed to brew just a small single espresso cup.  However, capsules are more energy efficient. These coffee machines only flash-heat the amount of water needed for one portion, unlike boiling a kettle.


But, the bulk of capsules on the market are plastic and the prevailing public perception, fed by numerous media stories, is that this plastic waste negates the other benefits of capsules, mainly the convenience of this fresh coffee method. So, we explored the pros and cons of three different types of capsules, from: a recycled plastic compound; to a compostable plant-based pod; to an aluminium pod.  For several reasons, we settled on the aluminium pods. We found these not only kept the coffee fresh, were most reliable in the capsule machine and, when made from 100% aluminium, were also easily recyclable in household recycling. 


Since 2010, Nespresso has been making fully-recyclable aluminium capsules, but just like L'Or plastic capsules, these have to be returned to Nespresso to be recycled at their own recycling facility. That’s because Nespresso capsules are not pure aluminium. Their pods have a silicon lining, which requires a unique recycling process. This requirement to work around normal household recycling methods means the recycling rate for Nespresso’s own capsules is still only 25%. The burden placed on the consumer to follow an additional recycling step means the adoption rate is unlikely to increase significantly.


Most coffee capsule companies now claim their products are recyclable, and in many cases they are right. But, what they don’t explain is how low the levels of recycling are for their products when their pod recycling process requires additional steps, beyond normal household recycling, because their recycling process is complicated.  


This is where our 100% aluminium pods offer a massive advantage.  Because both the pod and the lid are 100% aluminium, they can be recycled in normal household recycling. Certainly a bit of effort is required to empty the pods before recycling. But, this is a simple step and still less hassle than cleaning a cafetierre. As such, we believe the recycling adoption rate of our capsules will be much higher than those of other capsule producers. And, according to Professor Hill’s research, 100% aluminium pods represent the best option for fresh coffee in terms of the environmental foot print.


So, we encourage you to try our coffee capsules with a peace of mind that you might not be able to achieve with other capsules, but only as long as you recycle!