Reusable vs Recyclable: Which coffee pod is the most sustainable?

Given that single use plastic coffee pods are notoriously bad for the environment, how do more sustainable options such as biodegradable, compostable, and reusable pods compare? The crew at Effect The Change have made a fun and informative video on the topic you can check it out here. But if reading is your thing let’s plunge into it!

Making coffee the good ole fashioned way is of course the ‘greenest’ option, there is less manufacturing and packaging per ounce of it. But if you don’t want to send your coffee pod machine to landfill, which capsule type leaves the smallest environmental footprint?

Up first we’ve got biodegradable and compostable coffee pods

Coffee capsules that biodegrade or compost are great for reducing waste, but it’s difficult to dispose of them correctly, and to know just how much your pod contributes nutrients back to the earth.

As a general rule of thumb, biodegradable or compostable packaging that looks and feels like plastic will need an industrial composting facility to breakdown. Even coffee pods made entirely of plant-based bioplastics (derived from corn or sugarcane) need industrially high temperatures, moisture levels, and UV light to decompose within any reasonable time frame. Even still, these materials can leave behind micro-fragments and toxic residues.

Home composting and landfill simply won’t do, but at the moment we lack infrastructure on a wide scale to collect and compost this packaging. Some councils provide industrial composting through their kerbside green waste collection, however they may prohibit products labelled ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’, so make sure to double check.

In short, there isn’t a clear answer here. It’s a case by case basis and you’ll have to research how to compost each brand.

How about recyclable coffee pods?

Some plastic pods are recyclable in theory, however they’re often too small for domestic recycling bins. This means the process of recycling isn’t all that convenient.

For example, Nespresso pods need to be dropped at a Nespresso boutique or participating collection point, or posted to the company. Other brands require the pod to be disassembled and cleaned, before recycling each part separately.

Perhaps because of this, former Nespresso CEO estimates the worldwide rate of recycling for coffee pods to be less than 5%. Moreover, with the energy required to transport and process the capsules in a recycling facility, is this the most sustainable option?

Lastly, reusable coffee pods

The best thing humans can do for the environment is consume less. This reduces not only our waste, but also the energy expended in producing a product.

As you know, every item requires raw materials to be mined/grown/manufactured, processed, packaged, and shipped. This is quite an energy-hungry, short life for a tiny package of coffee. The energy output of manufacturing is so great, that no single-use item can compare to a reusable product - even if it’s recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable.

Consuming less is something to keep in mind for all aspects of life. So when it comes to a pre-portioned pack of coffee, reusable capsules get this right. The more your pod is reused, the more sustainable each cuppa (track your potential impact here).

You already know where to find some quality capsules, Crema Joe, where they also reuse packaging from local businesses that would otherwise go to landfill - every little bit helps!



If you’re looking to find more ways to reduce your footprint, the crew at Effect the Change are only too happy to entertain you with a short video, blog post, or a light spritzing of posts on our socials.

Alex Mealey is a guest blogger from the Effect the Change team. Passionate about living sustainably, she was onto compostable tea bags well before Coles and Woolworths banned plastic bags. Super keen on meeting new people and learning, she’s always looking up ways of doing small things that will make a big difference in the home.


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