Nespresso and the rise of the coffee pod
Coffee pods were introduced to the world by Nespresso, whose portmanteau moniker combines the name of its owner (Nestlé) and the type of coffee that these machines could produce (espresso). Nespresso was officially launched in 1986, but it took several years and some considerable rebranding before it started to gain ground in the coffee market.
The brand really took off in 2006 as a result of its high-profile marketing campaign with George Clooney, who is still the brand’s ‘ambassador’ to this day.
The Nespresso brand became dominant across much of the globe, with the notable exception of the USA, where Nespresso’s small portions struggled to satisfy to the big American appetite.
Its dominance was challenged around 2012 when some of Nespresso’s key patents expired, allowing competitors to enter the market.
There has also been increasing concern about the environmental impact of pods.
Are coffee pods bad for the environment?
The obvious negative impact of coffee pods is the waste that they produce, with each coffee made requiring a new pod. While many pods can be recycled, the majority end up in landfill instead of being recycled. According to The Rolling Bean, of the 39,000 capsules produced every minute worldwide, only 29,000 are actually recycled.
Nespresso pods are mostly made of aluminium (88% in consumer capsules and 67% in professional capsules), which is infinitely recyclable, though they also contain other materials including the filter, lacquer and silicon ring, which need to be melted off the aluminium during the recycling process.
Due to the mix of materials and the complexity of the recycling process, it has generally not been possible to recycle coffee pods with the rest of your household recycling.
For this reason Nespresso has operated its own recycling scheme for a number of years, where customers can send used pods to Nespresso, or drop them off at a collection point. In 2021, three of biggest coffee pod brands, Nespresso, Nescafé Dolce Gusto and Tassimo, launched a partnership programme, Podback, to allow consumers to recycle their coffee pods more easily. Pods can be dropped off at a number of locations across the UK, or left at the kerbside with your other household waste – though only if your local authority is part of the scheme.
This is a positive development if it helps to increase the number of pods that make it to recycling instead of landfill.
However, even if pods are recycled, this does not mean that their environmental impact is neutralised – the pods must still be produced, which requires energy and resources, and the recycling process takes more energy still.
The benefits of pod machines
Although pods create more packaging waste than other coffee products, some have argued that overall they are more environmentally friendly than other coffee making methods. A 2019 article by Wired even went so far as to proclaim that “coffee pods are actually pretty good for the environment.”
The first thing to put right about this misleading claim is that no method of making coffee is ‘good’ for the environment – rather, we are looking at which is the least harmful. This may seem like a pessimistic way of viewing the situation, but the production of most goods in the current global economy generally has many negative implications, not least due to the burning of fossil fuels in the production, transport, and use phases.
The Wired article argues that coffee pods are ‘good’ because they are generally less wasteful than other methods of making coffee. There is truth to this claim, because pods contain the exact amount of coffee needed to make a coffee, and on average this is significantly less than is used in other coffee brewing methods. Pod machines also only use and heat up the exact amount of water needed, whereas other methods (such as those that involve boiling a kettle) may heat up too much.
It is important to minimise waste, both of coffee and energy, because according to lifecycle analysis studies of making coffee, “the greatest environmental impact is attributed to the production of the ground coffee itself and the energy needed to brew the coffee.” More coffee wasted means more coffee needs to be grown, which comes with a host of environmental impacts, including use of pesticides, water, land and energy.
Using more energy than necessary at the brewing stage likely leads to more fossil fuels being burned. Of course, an individual using too much coffee or boiling a little too much water has minimal effect. But there is not just one individual making coffee – there are millions of people making several cups every day.