Sustainability: Pod Problems

A foggy Del Mar morning is never perfect without a cup of coffee. Some set their coffeemaker on a timer, while others head to their favorite coffee shop, or have a fancy machine pour them a cup with the finest Italian crema. As the technology surrounding caffeine addiction perfects itself, the National Coffee Association estimates that over 40% of U.S. households own a single-cup coffee brewing system using pods.


A coffee pod is a small plastic or aluminum container filled with coffee grounds. It is inserted into a machine where hot water percolates through and extracts the coveted liquid. Twenty-five seconds later, the pod is ready to be tossed. Aside from imposing on customers to purchase the same brand of capsules for the life of their machine, billions of them end up in landfills every year, where they generate methane and contribute to global warming. It is estimated that if all the cumulative pods tossed in landfills were lined up, they would circle the Earth 13 times.


Aside from the beans being grown in developing countries, plastics and aluminum need to be sourced, manufactured into pods necessary to enclose 6g of coffee in a 3g shell and transported before the pods are filled, assembled and packaged in a sleeve or a box for every 10, 24 or 72 Capsules.


In an effort to brand their product as sustainable, aluminum pod makers invite customers to mail the full used pods back in prepaid bags for recycling and composting. As for the recycling of plastic shells, it is wishful thinking at best. They could be recyclable, if customers were willing to empty them using a coffee pods cutter to split the pod open, extract the used coffee grounds, discard the inner filter and recycle the empty pods.


However, many pods are made out of non-recyclable plastic, and some facilities cannot handle the small size of the containers and divert them to landfills. Is there such a thing as a recyclable plastic pod?


In response to the environmental threat that the pods and capsules are posing, a number of washable and reusable pods are now widely available, along with a few compostable options. Read the fine print, however, as some pods call themselves compostable, but only in industrial composting facilities, which are not available in our area! In the meantime, I will end with this strong worded slogan from Greenpeace: “Kill the K-cup before it kills our planet.”