The lowdown on biodegradable coffee capsules

For the past month or so I’ve been exploring methods of reducing the household waste I generate — both that which goes to landfill and that which needs to be recycled.

Because, while it’s essential to reduce landfill, and recycling is certainly the better option, I believe the best option is to reduce waste all together. Recycling, after all, takes energy and resources that could be better deployed.

So… one of the first areas I’ve addressed is coffee capsules.

I would like to say that I’ve stopped using coffee capsules all together. I wish I could. But now that I’m all accustomed to flat white coffees at home (with my trusty milk frother) I cannot give them up. And my Nespresso machine with its capsules just makes it so easy and convenient and clean. (I simply detest dealing with coffee grounds.)

So I’m not giving up my coffee capsules.

The good news is that Nespresso’s aluminium capsules are recycled by Nespresso if you send them back via their stores (and participating florists). The coffee grounds go to compost and the aluminium is recycled. Excellent. Much better than landfill.

But recycling is a resource and energy-intensive process. There’s the collection and transport of the capsules, the machine to crack them open and separate the materials, then the melting down and reprocessing of the aluminium. All that energy. How much better is that than landfill?

coffeepod#1

As soon as I became aware of ecoCaffe, an Australian company that distributes Swiss-made Ethical Coffee Company biodegradable coffee capsules that are compatible with Nespresso machines, I resolved to give them a try.

According to ecoCaffe’s website, the capsules are made primarily from vegetable fibre and starch and degrade within 180 days in industrial composting. Sounds great, right? That’s way better than 150-200 years for aluminium capsules (if you don’t recycle them) and 500+ years for plastic capsules (which clearly should never be used again).

I ordered a couple of boxes. They came. I drank coffee.

Out of the two different roasts I ordered, I quite liked one and didn’t much like the other. Neither come close to my favourite Nespresso capsules (arpeggio — the purple one, and indriya — the olive one).

Disappointing.

This is not to say it’s bad coffee, but coffee is a personal thing, right?

coffeepods#2

The other thing that disappointed me was the packaging. The capsules themselves are fine — they feel a little plasticky and have a papery filter, but I trust them when they say they biodegrade, because the global standard is very strict. But the 10 capsules were double-packaged in a plastic bag and a cardboard box. With my current mission to minimise soft plastic packaging this was a big black mark.

When it comes to disposal of the used capsules, I have thrown all 20 capsules used so far into my worm farm. I don’t think I’ll be able to throw them all in there (assuming I purchase some more), but I’m interested to see how they go in a home composting situation.

coffeepods#4

Other disposal alternatives include: 1) to put them loose in my general garbage bin, although my understanding is that landfill conditions are not optimum for composting or biodegradation; 2) throw them in my green waste bin (according to their website), but I feel I should check with my council first before I start doing that.

Overall, I still have some things to work out, but I will persevere with another round of these capsules soon. I confess that in the meantime I’ve ordered another batch of Nespresso capsules, which will of course get recycled, but… I would really like to find a viable biodegradable option.


Update 18 July

From discussion generated by this post, I am now investigating stainless steel capsules! There are a few options on eBay can be refilled and reused unlimited times. I figure I might be able to handle coffee grounds on that scale. Will report back in time.

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