How can coffee capsules become more sustainable?

Amelia Cooper
July 25, 2022
How can coffee capsules become more sustainable?

Quick, affordable, and widely accessible, coffee capsules have transformed the way millions of people consume coffee.

They offer a convenient option for those looking to make cafe-style coffee beverages at home or in the office, in half the time. 

Traditionally, coffee capsules are made using pre-formed plastic cups and aluminium caps. These cups are filled with a single serving of pre-ground coffee and can be slotted into various coffee capsule machines on the market. 

However, the mass appeal and convenience of coffee capsules may be their downfall. Research done in 2021 found 29,000 discarded coffee capsules end up in landfills every month – amounting to almost 350,000 a year.

The blend of aluminium and plastic can be difficult to recycle and take up to 500 years to break down. As the number of eco-conscious consumers continues to grow, some are questioning how coffee capsules can become more sustainable.

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Close up image of green, aluminium coffee capsules next to cup of coffee, in article asking how can coffee capsules become more sustainable

How are coffee capsules made?

Coffee capsules are mass produced in a factory, where coffee grounds are packed and sealed into pre-formed plastic cups. 

Each capsule usually contains between 7g and 5g (0.24oz and 0.17oz) of coffee grounds. Once filled, the capsules are sealed with a lid most commonly made from aluminium.

This is done using a hermetic sealing process: this fills the capsules with nitrogen before fusing the aluminium lid to the plastic cup. 

This prevents oxygen from entering the capsule, helping to ensure the coffee remains fresh for far longer than an opened bag of ground coffee would.

Lastly, the capsules are painted with a coloured food-grade lacquer so consumers can easily identify the flavour of each one.  

Once inserted into a coffee pod machine, the capsules produce espresso-style beverages. The machine will pierce holes into the aluminium lid in order to flood the capsule with hot water, allowing the coffee to brew. 

As hot water is forced through the capsule, the bottom will rupture to let the coffee drip through the machine’s funnel and into the cup. 

The most commonly used variety of coffee capsules are single use. Due to the way they rupture, once the coffee is brewed, a capsule cannot be reused. 

It is estimated around 12,300 cups of aluminium-capsule coffee are consumed worldwide every minute. From an environmental perspective, this is highly problematic as the plastic waste crisis continues to grow.

Aluminium and polybutylene terephthalate plastic (PBT) are the two main types of materials used to make coffee capsules. 

Capsules made from pure aluminium and do not contain any plastics are fully recyclable. Additionally, once they have been washed out, they can be added to household recycling bins. 

However, the majority of coffee capsules comprise different ‌plastics or other materials that make them unable to be recycled.  

That said, other materials are being tested in order to make coffee capsules more sustainable. These include compostable materials that will naturally biodegrade within six months, or can be broken down in commercial composting facilities.

Close up image of stainless steel reusable coffee capsules in an article about how can coffee capsules become more sustainable

How can coffee capsules become more sustainable?

Due to its affordability, plastic remains the most popular material used for coffee capsules. 

Aluminium capsules can be expensive – although some consumers prefer them because of their “premium” feel. 

Additionally, biodegradable materials are still relatively new, and are mainly being used by independent manufacturers. These companies tend to operate at a higher price point than coffee giants, such as Lavazza, Nestle, Nescafé Dolce Gusto, and Tassimo.

As sustainable practices are adopted throughout the specialty sector, many question why coffee capsules remain so popular despite their obvious environmental impact.

This is likely because the number of customers who would buy a coffee capsule machine is greater than those who choose not to over environmental issues.

In essence, it appears that convenience often trumps sustainability when it comes to coffee capsules.

As a result, a wider range of reusable and recyclable coffee capsules has become available. These include options such as refillable steel capsules, recyclable aluminium pods, and capsules made from compostable and biodegradable materials.

Additionally, many brands are replacing plastic and using aluminium as the capsule material, as it is fully recyclable. Notably, studies have shown recyclable aluminium is the most sustainable choice of pod material.

A growing number of coffee capsule capsules, particularly independent specialty brands, are adopting more sustainable alternatives. This is to ensure they continue to appeal to an increasingly eco-conscious customer base. 

If more brands choose their coffee capsule materials with care, they may actually be beneficial for the environment. 

According to an article published in 2019, coffee capsules represent one of the most sustainable coffee manufacturing processes.

A 2019 study evaluated the growing process, waste disposal, energy requirements, water usage, and pollution created by a wide variety of popular coffee brewing methods. 

It was found that instant coffee was the most sustainable, with coffee capsules coming in second. 

This is because of the limited volume of coffee needed in a capsule, as well as the low level of energy used during the process. This outweighs the environmental impact of the wasted capsule material.

How should coffee capsules be disposed of?

As consumers continue to demand more environmentally friendly practices, the future of coffee capsule sustainability looks promising. 

Until a wider variety of sustainable coffee capsules becomes accessible, the key is to ensure used capsules are disposed of responsibly. 

To recycle a 100% aluminium pod, customers will need to peel off the lid and empty the used coffee grounds into a compost bin. Then the capsule and lid can be placed in a recycling bin. 

Biodegradable coffee capsules can be added straight to a natural waste or composting bin, along with the spent coffee grounds. 

If more brands communicate this information to customers, they can ensure as many capsules are recycled as possible. 

Furthermore, conveying this information to more consumers is even easier, thanks to the number of specialty roasters who are using social media platforms.

Disposal and recycling instructions can be shared through a brands’ social media pages, website, and coffee packaging. 

An image of multilayer kraft paper coffee bag in an article about how can coffee capsules become more sustainable

Recent developments in digital printing technology can also help roasters print recycling tips on the boxes for their coffee capsules.

This is a great way to not only demonstrate a company’s ethos and sense of responsibility, but ensures a brand’s carbon footprint is kept to the absolute minimum. 

The team at MTPak Coffee specialises in providing the best quality protection for your coffee at the smallest environmental cost. Our range of packaging also includes recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable options such as rice paper, all of which are made from renewable materials.

Furthermore, we can use digital printing to customise coffee bags to convey separation and recycling instructions on coffee bags. With a 40-hour turnaround and 24-hour shipping time, we are able to offer low minimum order quantities (MOQs) of packaging, no matter what size or material.

For more information on sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team.

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