Are coffee capsules the most sustainable way to consume coffee?

Lebo Matshego
August 31, 2022
Are coffee capsules the most sustainable way to consume coffee?

Coffee capsules revolutionised the accessibility and consumption of specialty coffee when they were introduced to the market in the 1980s. 

They continue to dominate the industry not only because of their convenience but also for their upmarket aesthetic. Notably, the global coffee capsule market is expected to reach $16.7 billion in 2026.

However, the popularity of coffee capsules has a downside. Research done in 2021 found 29,000 discarded coffee capsules end up in landfills every month – amounting to almost 350,000 a year.

As a result, a growing number of specialty coffee roasters have begun offering compostable coffee capsules in order to reduce environmental waste. That said, they are unable to account for the electricity and water used to prepare a single-serve coffee capsule in a matter of seconds.

To find out if coffee capsules are the most sustainable way to consume coffee, I spoke with the owners of 4WKS Pods in South Africa, Daniel and Oliver Pretorius.

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An image of coffee capsules in an article on whether coffee capsules are the most sustainable way to consume coffee

The rise of coffee capsules

Coffee capsules were once widely considered as “glorified instant coffee”. However, they have recently undergone a transformation, with numerous specialty brands now launching their own compatible pods.

Nespresso was the first to launch a range of single-serve coffee machines in 1986 with the aim of making barista-style espresso coffee accessible to everyone. The brand developed single-use coffee capsules made of aluminium to make the brewing process as quick as possible.

Sales of single-serve coffee machines, and subsequently capsules, increased significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic when coffee shops were inaccessible. In the US alone, at-home coffee consumption increased by over 4%.

This change in consumer trends brought about another revenue stream for specialty coffee roasters to produce quality coffee capsules.

“Capsules allowed consumers to explore specialty coffee, and at 4WKS, it allowed us the opportunity to bridge the gap between specialty coffee and capsules,” says Daniel, who is also a co-founder of a rooibos tea bar.

“For mass roasters, capsules contribute significantly to their revenue. However, for specialty roasters, it’s still a growing revenue stream and a growing global trend,” he adds.

Are coffee capsules the most sustainable way to consume coffee?

The majority of coffee capsules are made of a blend of aluminium and plastic. 

While aluminium is highly recyclable, it can be difficult to separate it from the plastic element, which often results in a significant amount of unnecessary waste.

In most cases, local recycling facilities lack the technology needed to detect the mixed materials in a coffee capsule shell, including leftover coffee grounds. 

When Nespresso’s coffee capsule patent ended in 2011, it allowed specialty coffee roasters to manufacture their own capsules that worked within Nespresso single-serve machines. Many turned to plastic capsule shells as they were cost-effective and easy to transport.

However, plastic can take up to 500 years to break down in landfills, which may lead to mass pollution and a risk of exposure to the chemical compound bisphenol A (BPA).

A number of health researchers say extended exposure to BPA may lead to immunity, reproductive, and neurological issues in humans.

This sustainability gap allowed other players within the coffee community to offer eco-friendly alternatives, such as refillable steel capsules, 100% recyclable aluminium pods, and capsules made from compostable or biodegradable materials.

For instance, 4WKS provides compostable coffee pods. “The capsules shells we use are fully compostable. This means the shell, lid, the coffee grounds inside and the outer packaging will break down into nutritious soil when turned into a composting facility,” explains Oliver, who is Daniel’s cousin and co-founder of 4WKS. 

That said, the capsules need to be treated correctly during the waste management cycle in order to be part of a circular economy.

A close up image of coffee capsules in an article on whether coffee capsules are the most sustainable way to consume coffee

Another aspect that is often overlooked is the brewing process itself and the carbon footprint of single-serve espresso machines.

For instance, using a capsule machine to brew one cup of coffee releases around 57g to 73g of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).

When milk, sugar, and cream are taken into account, the carbon footprint is substantially higher, as the dairy products are one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide emissions across the coffee industry’s operations and supply chain.

Additionally, espresso machines use between 1,000 watts and 1,500 watts of electricity, compared to a drip coffee maker, which uses around 750kWh and 1,250kWh per pot.

A single serve espresso machine requires more energy as it forces hot water through the capsule to brew. More so, holding and heating water to a high temperature generally requires a significant amount of energy. 

For example, a well-used espresso machine that uses around 10,000kWh per year can produce over 2,900kg of carbon emissions.

An image of drip or filter coffee next to white multilayer recyclable coffee bag in an article on whether coffee capsules are the most sustainable way to consume coffee

More sustainable ways of drinking coffee

The growing plastic waste crisis, coupled with the global energy crisis, is prompting coffee shops and consumers to find greener ways to brew coffee.

That said, there is a gap between coffee consumers and sustainability knowledge – particularly disinformation about the coffee process, from sourcing to packaging. 

However, this gap provides roasters with an opportunity to educate consumers so they can make informed purchasing decisions and understand their part in the recycling process.

As it is unlikely that the convenience of coffee machines will falter, a growing number of roasters are offering compostable specialty coffee capsules.

Additionally, more roasters are investing in sustainable coffee bags for their ground and whole bean offerings. These coffee bags are made from recyclable options such as kraft paper or rice paper, as well as low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and bioplastic polylactic acid (PLA).

These alternatives to plastic packaging are recyclable, cost-effective, and relatively easy to produce. More so, they contribute to the circular green economy where resources are in continual use and waste is eliminated.

An image of multilayer coffee packaging in an article on whether coffee capsules are the most sustainable way to consume coffee

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of certified-sustainable coffee packaging options for specialty roasters and coffee shop owners. Our range consists of eco-friendly coffee packaging made from 100% recyclable materials, such as kraft and rice paper, LDPE and PLA.

Furthermore, our talented team can design and digitally print customised coffee bags to help educate consumers on sustainability throughout the coffee supply chain.

We have a quick 40-hour turnaround and fast delivery, with a 24-hour shipping time, allowing us to offer low minimum order quantities (MOQs).

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

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Lebo Matshego
Lebo Matshego

Lebo is a writer for MTPak Coffee and is very passionate about her craft.

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