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  • Are Coffee Pods And Capsules Bad For The Environment? Statistics, Facts & Quotes
Last updated: 24 January 2024

Are Coffee Pods And Capsules Bad For The Environment? Statistics, Facts & Quotes

In the time it takes to read this sentence, thousands of coffee pods have been produced and discarded worldwide, contributing to a growing environmental concern. As the popularity of single-serve coffee machines continues to rise, so does the Production of coffee pods and capsules. 

It is estimated that 576,000 metric tons of coffee capsule waste generated globally. But are these convenient little packages as harmful to the environment as we think?

Coffee pods and capsules are not bad for the environment compared to most everyday items and activities. Emissions per cup of coffee are between 200 to 644 grams of CO2. Some pods and caps can be 100% biodegraded in 2 - 3 months or recycled.

Join us as we navigate the intricate landscape of coffee consumption and environmental sustainability, shedding light on the key factors contributing to the debate. We'll explore the resource-intensive manufacturing processes, the challenges of recycling or composting these single-use items, and the potential alternatives that could lead to a more sustainable coffee culture.

Coffee pods and capsules GreenMatch hero image

What Do We Mean With Coffee Capsules and Pods Exactly

Coffee pods and capsules hold the coffee grounds and flavour. You put this into your coffee machine to make the coffee. It is ready to go and makes your coffee in only a few seconds. Usually, the heating of the water takes the longest time.

The research on this topic is a bit complex because people sometimes use "coffee pod" and "coffee capsule" as synonyms without clarity. At the same time, others make a specific distinction between pods and pads.

We have worked around this as best we can. On this page, we use the words pod and capsule interchangeably.

There are several variations of coffee pods and capsules, usually based on what you do with it once used:

    1. Standard coffee pods are round and flat packages made from paper. Most pods fit into several machines.
    1. Capsules are made from plastic or aluminium, vacuum sealed and usually specific per brand or machine.
    1. Recyclable pods/capsules. Most capsules (and some pods) are recyclable nowadays by the brand/manufacturer.
    1. Compostable pods. These pods are biodegradable and can be used to fertilise ground or decompose by nature to make room for something else.
    1. Reusable pods. These are rarely used as they take away the convenience factor from other pods and capsules, for a large part.

Environmental Impact of Coffee Pods and Caps

The environmental impact of coffee cups and pods is substantial but small compared to anything you use daily. Here are the most essential facts and figures:

Making 1 cup of coffee (280 ml) using a pod or capsule means releasing 200 grams of CO2 in total, according to the data from the Washington Post.

This would make it the best option if you want to drink coffee.

However, this research contradicts previous research that says that 1 cup of coffee (280 ML) releases:

    • Moka pot 56 grams of CO2
    • Pods 70 grams of CO2 
    • Capsules 129,5 grams of CO2

Or other research that shows these numbers per cup of coffee (280 ML):

    • Moka pot 315 - 413 grams of CO2
    • Espresso 518 - 672 grams of CO2
    • Pods 504 - 644 grams of CO2
    • Capsules 399 - 511 grams of CO2

And finally, a combination of several studies from this source showed this chart:

It is unclear how these significant differences arise as all research is based upon the total life cycle of coffee and includes all attributes used, like electricity and water.

Regardless of which research you follow, coffee pods and capsules aren't significant polluters as long as you recycle or use compostable versions.

Every year, 56.000.000.000 coffee pods and capsules end up in landfills (95% of total!). Putting them next to each other is 341.600 KM / 212.260 Miles long. 

You can go around the earth 57 times with that length as a reference!

As for the weight, one empty capsule weighs 3 grams. Fifty-six billion times 3 grams means we add 168.000.000 kilograms of landfill waste annually in coffee capsules (mostly) and pods.

To put that into perspective, that amounts to 168x empty Boeing 737s yearly. And the waste produced every year is still growing.

After a while, the capsules can release toxins that might harm nature and release harmful amounts of methane gas (WWF).

Are Coffee Capsules and Pods Sustainable?

Are coffee capsules and pods sustainable? Compostable coffee pods and capsules are 100% sustainable. Other options are almost 100% recyclable or produce minimal pollution compared to everyday items and activities.

Are They Toxic?

Are coffee capsules and pods toxic? Suppose coffee pods or capsules (other than the compostable ones) are put into nature or thrown into water. In that case, they might release a small amount of harmful chemicals because those are part of the materials used to produce them.

However, since capsules are small, so is the amount of toxins released.

Still, we recommend never throwing them into anything other than a recycling bin.

Can You Recycle Coffee Pods and Caps?

In theory, you can recycle most coffee capsules and pods. Most brands/manufacturers have a recycling program set up where you can deposit your pods and capsules.

However, in practice, there are a few problems:

The biggest problem here is the need for recycling bins. The pods and capsules must be recycled via the brand or manufacturer, which means taking the capsules with you when you buy new ones.

If you are ordering them online, this is a problem already. But it would be best to store them until you can return them.

As the numbers show, most people don't do this. It is also different from the reason to buy pods or capsules in the first place: convenience. The people who make coffee the most convenient way are probably not the best target crowd to ask to do some hassle to recycle the cups.

But even if people put them into recycle bins or hand them over, there are other problems. Coffee pods and cups are hard to recycle because of the way they are created.

According to Life Cycle Assessment of Compostable Coffee Pods: A US University-Based Case Study, removing the coffee grounds is hard for one. 

Another problem is the materials inside the cups. "The capsules can't be recycled easily because they are often made of plastic and aluminium. The complexity of the packaging - often a mix of different materials - combined with the dregs of organic waste from unused ground coffee sitting in the bottom of the pod makes them difficult to process in standard municipal recycling plants," says Jan Dube, spokesman of the Hamburg Department of the Environment and Energy.

This means that many standard recycling facilities lack the technology to detect the minor components of a pod reliably. Telling only the brand/manufacturer can do this effectively.

Nespresso runs its recycling programme, picking up used capsules for reuse. A company spokesperson said that it can recycle over 80% of used capsules, with 14,000 dedicated capsule collection points in 31 countries, and it aims to increase this to 100% by 2020, as reported by Coherent Marketing Insights.

Are Coffee Pods or Capsules Biodegradable?

Regular coffee pods and cups are not biodegradable, but specific compostable coffee pods and capsules are 100% within 2 - 3 months.

Standard capsules and pods are created to be strong. They can fall on the ground without breaking and resist the forces the coffee machine unleashes on them without problems. Therefore, decomposition can take up to 500 years, according to the WWF.

100% Organic compostable materials are the exception here. Coffee pods and cups made from these materials take only 1 - 2 months to decompose. Over the last decade, more and more companies have started manufacturing these, and they are the way of the future regarding sustainability.

WWF, for example, is selling 100% compostable coffee pods.

Environmental Impact Compared to Everyday Things

How bad are coffee pods and capsules compared to household items and everyday activities? It's excellent.

How bad are coffee cups or caps compared to everyday items or activities? Turns out pretty good. Especially if you consider that, on average, people take 1 cup of coffee daily, which is okay compared to other everyday activities.

    • 1 NFT transaction 48.000 grams CO2
    • Using phone 2 minutes per day 47.000 grams CO2
    • Large dinner 28.000 grams CO2
    • 1 cup of milk 882 grams CO2
    • Driving per km 300 grams CO2
    • 1 cup of coffee via coffee pod or capsules 200 grams CO2
    • 1 cup of almond milk 192 grams CO2
    • Streaming 1 hour 36 grams CO2
Coffee pods and Capsules studies

Now, this doesn't take into account the recycling/waste created. That is very hard to compare to other items, but this is also not too bad compared to the list above.

What Are Pods & Caps Alternatives?

There are many alternatives to coffee pods and capsules.

First, you don't need an alternative if you recycle them or use compostable ones.

As long as you don't suddenly drink more coffee than you would with another way of brewing, it's faster and easier.

Compostable pods or caps would be perfect since they degrade in 2 - 3 months. If you don't want to use those, please recycle your coffee pods and cups.

If recycling is too polluting for your taste, switching to a different drink like water or tea is best.

Statistics, Facts and Figures About Coffee Pods and Capsules

The global coffee market was valued at USD 127 billion in 2022 and is anticipated to witness a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.72% from 2023 to 2030 (source).

The single-serve coffee market surged in the 2010s as coffee pod machines became the standard in more and more households.

The global coffee pods and capsules market size reached US$ 25.9 Billion in 2022. The market will reach US$ 39.9 billion by 2028, exhibiting a growth rate (CAGR) of 7.3% from 2023 to 2028 (source).

In 2018, 59.000.000.000 coffee pods & capsules were produced (Halo).

This means:

How many coffee pods & capsules are made every minute worldwide: 112.253

How many coffee pods & capsules are made every hour worldwide: 6.735.160

How many coffee pods & capsules are made every day worldwide: 161.643.836

How many coffee pods & capsules are made every week worldwide: 1.134.615.385

How many coffee pods & capsules are made every month worldwide: 4.916.666.667

How many coffee pods & capsules are made annually worldwide: 59.000.000.000

Craft Coffee Spot found the market to be much larger than this: over 62 billion pods are consumed annually in the US and Europe.

According to one report, the market is growing steadily but quickly: The coffee capsule market is expected to grow to $17.9 billion in 2027 at a CAGR of 7.7%.

Main reasons for the fast and continuous growth of coffee cups and pods:

    1. Convenience, ease of use and consistency
    1. Create coffee with a limited amount of equipment.
    1. New flavours are introduced every year.
    1. Perfect for online retailers and subscription services
    1. Popular in countries with developing economies

Here are some vital statistics on how many households have coffee machines around the world:

    • 46% of households in North America
      • 49 million coffee pod machines in US households
    • 43% of Canadian households
      • 6 million in Canada
    • 50% of European households
      • 113 million pod machines in the EU
    • 46% of UK households
      • 12.6 million British households
    • 75% of Chinese households

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