Plastic coffee pods and capsules disposal and recycling

19th April 2023

By Mark Hall

Plastic coffee pods and capsules disposal and recycling

Coffee pods were originally created by Nespresso engineer Eric Favre, who aimed to create an alternative to the espresso machine that was easier to use with a comparable standard of coffee. Nestle registered the Nespresso trademark and patented the Nespresso machine in 1986.

In 1988, a change of marketing tact saw Nestle selling the machines directly to consumers, rather than to business owners. As sales increased, so did the number of coffee pod-selling competitors, many undercutting Nespresso.

There are now over 400 coffee pod brands on the market, with pods costing from £0.50 to £1.

What are coffee pods made from?
Coffee pods are a pre-portioned serving of coffee grounds wrapped in filter paper that is used in a specialist coffee pod machine. There are a few different systems, but many are interchangeable. They are so popular they make up one-third of the Western European coffee market.

They are made using many steps:

1. The pod is created. Most are plastic, some are aluminium.
2. Coffee beans are ground to a uniform size
3. Pre-formed cups, in different colours to denote different flavours, are put into the machine
4. The cups are filled with preground coffee
5. Aluminium caps are cut out by a laser
6. Some capsules insert an internal plastic filter to allow greater water pressure
7. The cap is sealed and an inspection is performed to monitor for leaks, carbon monoxide levels and more
The pods are then packaged into boxes by flavour and shipped off to their destinations. Flavours include different intensities of coffee bean, and additional flavours including vanilla, chocolate and various nuts.

Coffee pod waste disposal
Coffee pods have a reputation for being bad for the environment, but how are they disposed of?
29,000 coffee pods go to landfills every month, mostly made up of plastic that will take hundreds of years to decompose. Pods aren’t routinely accepted in household recycling, but coffee pod manufacturers are trying to increase pod recycling

Podback is a 2020 scheme that allows coffee pod recycling by two different methods. Collect + offers drop off points around the UK in a variety of stores, open 7 days a week. There is also the option to order recycling bags directly from the brand which are collected and sent back to them – supermarkets are also due to start this scheme. Finally, people from a few specific areas (Cheltenham and South Derbyshire) can sign up for curbside recycling collection.

Some companies like Lavazza have started producing biodegradable pods that are compostable, meaning they can also be put in food/garden waste, however, the duration of time required for composting varies greatly.

Aluminium pods are more common and described as a more environmentally friendly option, but these are still not widely recyclable as the aluminium is mixed with natural (coffee) waste. High temperatures are needed, but also chemicals to separate the aluminium from the paint and plastic lining.

Coffee pod alternatives
So coffee pods seem to be a handy way to produce a high-quality cup of coffee, but what are the alternatives?
If you really can’t do without your coffee pods, obviously biodegradable coffee pods are better than plastic ones. But reusable pods also exist; some you send back to the manufacturer to be reused, some stainless steel ones exist which you can reuse yourself at home.

Coffee pods are a relatively new concept, so one of the best pod alternatives is going back to basics. Depending on how much of a coffee vs espresso fan you are, you can go for a simple French press, a filter coffee machine, a Moka pot, or even a specific espresso machine. All of these use simple coffee grounds that can go straight into the compost with minimal waste produced.