Compostable coffee capsules: Catering to convenience & sustainability

Hayley Osbourne
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June 19, 2023
An image of compostable coffee capsules from Metropolis Coffee in an article on Compostable coffee capsules and how they're catering to convenience and sustainability

In recent years, coffee capsules have undergone a transformation: going from “glorified instant coffee” to becoming a staple across several homes and offices worldwide. Statistics show the number of US coffee consumers who purchased a single-serve brewing machine in 2020 increased by 40%. 

Coffee capsules continue to dominate the industry due to their convenience and upmarket aesthetic. Notably, the global coffee capsule market is expected to reach $16.7 billion in 2026. This change in consumer trends brought about another revenue stream for specialty coffee roasters to produce quality coffee capsules

While convenience and growing quality are driving forces behind the sale of capsules, the environmental impact has become an important purchasing factor to consider. Research done in 2021 found 29,000 discarded coffee capsules end up in landfills every month – amounting to almost 350,000 a year. 

In a bid to tackle the waste, one specialty coffee brand now offers completely compostable espresso capsules. To learn more about how Metropolis Coffee has managed to do this, I spoke with founder, Tony Dreyfuss. 

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Are capsules a sustainable way to consume coffee?

Nespresso was the first to launch a range of single-serve coffee machines in 1986. The aim was to make 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. Therefore, the majority of traditional coffee pods were made with plastic or aluminium. 

While aluminium is highly recyclable, it can be difficult to separate from the plastic element, which often results in a significant amount of unnecessary waste. When Nespresso’s coffee capsule patent ended in 2011, it allowed specialty coffee roasters to manufacture their own capsules that worked within Nespresso’s 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 biodegradable, recyclable, or compostable materials.

When asked why Metropolis chose to create fully compostable coffee capsules as opposed to recyclable ones, Tony had two reasons. “First, recycling standards and availability vary from city to city in the US. As there is no single standard we were uncomfortable with calling an aluminium capsule ‘recyclable’.” 

“Second, where recycling availability does exist, the customer would still be required to take the capsule apart and rinse it clean before recycling. Single-serve is supposed to be about convenience, so we wanted to make the sustainability aspect as convenient as possible. With commercially compostable capsules, consumers can toss the whole thing in with the compost and have it picked up, guilt-free.” 

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. 

An image of compost made from compostable coffee capsules in an article on Compostable coffee capsules and how they're catering to convenience and sustainability

How “compostable” are coffee capsules?

Essentially, compostable coffee pods should be able to break down quickly and create nutrient-rich compost. Some compostable capsules are made from plant-based materials such as corn starch and sugar cane pulp instead of plastics or metals so that they can break down easily into compost.

“Our espresso capsules are made of plant-based material without the use of any petroleum or petroleum by-products,” Tony explains. “More so, our commercially compostable capsules are certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) and the Composting Manufacturing Alliance (CMA), while our home compostable capsules are certified by TUV.” 

Sustainability certifications on coffee packaging are accredited, accessible, and effective methods of communicating to customers that a business and its practices are truly ethical. These certifications also help create transparency within every stage of the supply chain. More so, they demonstrate that a business has adhered to voluntary standards regarding environmental, social, ethical, and food safety issues.

Beyond that, both commercial and home composting create nutrient-rich compost at the end of the process. However, industrial composting is able to sustain the temperatures and stability of the compost more rigorously. Home composting is the breakdown of organic waste over a period of months.

An image of compostable coffee capsules from Metropolis Coffee in custom printed coffee boxes for coffee capsules an article on Compostable coffee capsules and how they're catering to convenience and sustainability

What to consider before offering compostable coffee capsules

There’s no denying the global capsule market will continue growing at an unprecedented rate, with forecasts that it could hit almost $10 billion by 2032. For many consumers, convenience is king – even more so since the pandemic – and there’s considerable value in products that are affordable, multifunctional, and easy to use.

Preserving freshness and quality

While some worry about the capsule’s ability to preserve coffee freshness, it has been found the single-dose format ensures oxidation does not occur. Generally, coffee contained in foil-sealed and nitrogen-flushed capsules stays fresh for between six months and a year

If consumers are not made aware of the significant shelf-life differences between conventional and compostable capsules, they could be drinking stale coffee. The compostable capsules from Metropolis have a shelf life of 24 months. 

“When we set out to add capsules to our offerings, we aimed to achieve four goals,” Tony explains. “First was quality, as unfortunately, consumers won’t care about the sustainability of the product if the coffee doesn’t taste good. Second was freshness, as the capsules had to remain extremely fresh along the supply chain, which is between 12 and 24 months.

“Third, was our certifications. We needed certification on compostability to assure our customers and partners that we are not greenwashing. Last, the packaging and the capsules themselves had to look gorgeous in an eco-luxurious way.” This was in order to stay consistent with the brand look and feel that Metropolis has secured over the last 20 years.

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

Furthermore, we can use digital printing to customise coffee bags and boxes to convey separation and recycling instructions  MTPak Coffee offers a full range of state-of-the-art customisation techniques, allowing coffee brands to create distinctive, utterly unique and sustainable packaging. Whether you want to add a gloss or matte finish to your bag, or feature bold holographic elements, our team is on hand to help bring your design ideas to life. 

For more information on sustainable packaging for your coffee capsules, contact our team

Don’t click away without diving into our exclusive interview with Metropolis Coffee

Images: Metropolis Coffee

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Hayley Osbourne
Hayley Osbourne

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

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