Fifteen years ago, coffee pods were a tiny fraction of the coffee market. By 2014, pods had grown to make up a third of all coffee sales in the U.S. alone, and people suddenly noticed the problem: Of the billions of pods sold each year, almost all end up in landfills. Now, as part of the backlash, comes the first major pod ban.
In January, Hamburg, Germany banned "certain polluting products" from government buildings—including coffee pods, which have grown as quickly in Europe as America. More Europeans now buy coffee pod machines than drip coffee makers. In Germany, one out of eight cups of coffee comes from a plastic or aluminum pod that can't easily be recycled.
The city doesn't plan to try to ban coffee pods for consumers, but wanted to use its multi-million dollar budget to send a message. "We in Hamburg just thought that these capsules shouldn't be bought with taxpayers' money," says Jan Dube, head of communications for the city's ministry of environment and energy.
It's an expensive way to make coffee. "It's roughly six grams of coffee in up to three grams of packaging," he says. But the city was most concerned with the environmental problem the pods create.
Just manufacturing the pods wastes energy. "The capsules are mainly made of [virgin] aluminum and not of recycled metal," he says. "That makes the environmental footprint even worse." Even if the pods were recycled after someone uses them, they'd still be more wasteful than brewing coffee more traditionally—unless, that is, you consistently make too much coffee and throw it away, and leave the machine running for long stretches of time.
"It comes down to the use," says Monique Oxender, chief sustainability officer at Keurig Green Mountain, the biggest coffee pod manufacturer in the U.S. "If what you're drinking is just a single serving of coffee, then it's much more resource efficient to brew just one cup as opposed to an entire pot of coffee—about 30% less energy use."
The pods use coffee so efficiently that they've actually been blamed for hurting coffee bean sales.
Keurig estimated that when people brew a full batch of coffee in an office, they typically end up pouring about 15% of the pot down the drain. Since growing coffee beans has a large impact on the environment, wasting coffee adds up, not only in energy use, but in water use; 15% of a cup of coffee takes six gallons of water to produce, often in countries that have limited water supply. If you brew only a single cup, in theory, you'll drink all of it. (It's worth noting that it's already possible to already do the same thing with something like a single-cup French press, which doesn't even use a filter.)
If an office brews two batches of coffee a day—versus 16 single-serve pods—it would also use 54% more energy to run the coffee machine. In total, over the full lifecycle, a commercial-scale coffeemaker, like the Bunn machine common in many offices, would end up having 27% more of an impact on the climate than using K-cups—despite the endless parade of disposable pods, according to Keurig.
Still, Keurig admits that pod waste needs to be solved. Keurig sells a reusable version of the K-cup, but it still sells more disposable pods; now, it's trying to design a version of the disposable pod that can easily be recycled. Their K-cup is a #7 plastic, which they claim is acceptable in about half of U.S. communities, but their new design will be made of #5 plastic, which is accepted almost everywhere. Over the last year, they tested tens of thousands of K-cups in a few large recycling centers, tracking how the tiny cups made it through the equipment. About 70% were recovered. This year, they plan to figure out how to catch the remainder—and help the recyclers better recover any other tiny items that come through the system.
Others have proposed different coffee pods, like designer Eason Chow's sugar-based edible pod that melts into your coffee. In Italy, Caffe Vergnano designed a biopolymer capsule that can go in a compost bin. Honest Coffee Company makes another plant-based pod.
The city of Hamburg has already been approached by companies selling more environmentally friendly coffee brewers, which they may consider. "We think that people in Hamburg and within the city administration should decide how they like their coffee best," says Dube. "We just don't want to support non-eco-friendly products with public money."