Andreas Späth

Don’t be seduced by George Clooney’s coffee pods

2015-08-17 09:39

Andreas Wilson-Späth

I started drinking coffee in my 40s. I tried many times before then, but never enjoyed the taste. So what got me hooked in the end? One of those new-fangled machines that takes single-serving coffee pods – you know, the ones Mr Clooney advertises so enthusiastically.

A hotel room I was staying in had one of them and I really just wanted to find out how they work. Once I brewed a cup I took a sip and for the very first time liked what I tasted. My conversion had nothing to do with the machine though and everything with the fact that I was in the process of shaking a life-long addiction to Coca Cola – my body simply recognised the caffeine and happily accepted the substitute.

In the last decade, millions of coffee fans around the world have become enthusiastic consumers of these very convenient pods – with dire consequences for the environment.

The so-called Keurig cup or K-cup was invented by a young Bostonian by the name of John Sylvan in the 1990s. He sold his company in 1997 and it would eventually become Keurig Green Mountain. Demand for the little tubs has skyrocketed and by 2014, Keurig Green Mountain sold over 9 billion units.

When the design patent expired in 2012 a plethora of other companies entered the fray and today, pod-based coffee makers of some brand or other can be found in one out of three US homes and probably in similar numbers in offices and workplaces.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the tiny pods have revolutionised the global coffee industry and contributed a whole lot to its profitability, but their popularity hasn’t come without considerable drawbacks. While the machines are relatively miserly when it comes to electricity consumption and are super efficient at extracting flavour from just a little bit of ground coffee (typically about 11 grams per pod), it’s the staggering numbers in which they are consumed and thrown away that is causing trouble.

It’s estimated that around 13 billion pods were sold in 2014 alone. Stacked end-to-end, that’s enough to encircle the planet more than a dozen times. And almost all of them end up in landfill sites.

By far the majority of coffee pods on the market today are not reusable, recyclable or biodegradable in practice. Following a mounting backlash from concerned consumers, involving online videos, hashtag campaigns, websites and more, many manufacturers have been selling supposedly recyclable versions, but in most cases even those can’t be processed properly at municipal recycling plants.

The problem is that the pods are made of multiple components (paper, plastic and metal) and unless you are inclined to painstakingly take apart each one to separate these various bits by hand, recycling isn’t really a very viable proposition. In addition, many pods contain types of speciality plastics that aren’t accepted by the majority of recycling facilities.

Some companies have set up programmes that allow users to return spent pods for recycling, but critics have dismissed these as ineffective, inadequate and little more than attempts to ‘greenwash’ their products.

Even John Sylvan, the inventor, has regrets about unleashing his creation on the voracious coffee market, saying “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it” and declaring that “no matter what they say about recycling, these things will never be recyclable”.

So don’t let George Clooney or the promise of convenience lure you into using coffee pods. You don’t need them to satisfy your daily coffee fix quickly and cheaply. Based on life-cycle analyses, the most sustainable cup of coffee is brewed from instant granules and if you want it to be even greener you have plenty of organic and Fairtrade options to choose from on most supermarket shelves these days.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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