Earth Chat

Where do used coffee capsules go?

In recent years, coffee culture has prevailed. Many young people like to go to coffee shops to have a cup of coffee and relax. Many even use a capsule coffee machine to make a cup of coffee at home. Manufacturers seal the coffee powder in a capsule made of plastic and aluminum to keep the powder in the freshest state. Users only need to put it inside the machine and press a button to make a cup of espresso. The consumption of capsule coffee is staggering. According to an international survey, the total value of the capsule coffee market is estimated at US$4.09 billion in 2021. In the United States, the annual sales volume of capsule coffee machines was as high as 20 million. Yet, it is unfortunate that capsules are single-use packaging and will inevitably become plastic garbage, so what is the fate of used capsules?

Contamination by capsule coffee

The biggest problem with capsule coffee is packaging. It is reported that 6 grams of coffee require 3 grams of packaging. It is also difficult to recycle the capsules, which are made of mixture of plastic and aluminum. If citizens dispose it as ordinary litter, the capsules may be contaminated by other garbage and become unrecyclable, ending up as landfill waste. Some manufacturers pointed out that 29,000 out of 39,000 capsules were discarded. And even if the capsule is made of pure aluminum, there is a risk of aluminum contamination. Furthermore, a European research institute, The Oeko-Institut, found that the entire life cycle of capsule coffee consumes the most energy compared to other types of coffee (such as French Press coffee maker, American coffee machines or fully automatic coffee machines)—every two thousand cups of capsule coffee produces approximately 81 to 87 kilograms of carbon emissions, which is 20 to 70 kilograms higher than others. Notably, the environmental cost of capsule disposal accounted for 13% of its emissions. It is obvious that proper disposal and recycling are very important.

DIY upcycling

In fact, we, as citizens, can also do simple DIY to give the capsule a second life. In foreign countries, some people will wash away the remaining coffee grounds and turn capsules into mini flower pots. After the seeds germinate, they can be transplanted into larger containers. Besides, used capsules are also a good storage aid. We can upcycle them into boxes with grids by gluing them side by side to store small objects such as pills, jewelry, or pins. It can even become a mold for snack cups or Easter eggs. But bear in mind that capsules are always unnecessary waste. We cannot upgrade and upcycle all of the capsules used in our lifetime. Therefore, reduction is the top priority.

A light for recycling

In recent years, manufacturers have developed technologies to efficiently reuse and recycle capsules. For example, Nespresso changed to use pure aluminum to make "metal coffee capsules” and provided customers with multiple recycling points and venues. After recycling, the aluminum will be extracted re-smelted, and fed into the supply chain to become a new capsule or upcycled into other items such as bicycles, pocketknives, peelers, etc. In addition, many coffee merchants have switched to biodegradable and compostable coffee capsules. For example, British coffee merchant Halo invented compostable capsules made of sugarcane and paper pulp, such that they can be decomposed in domestic environments (such as garden, food waste bins or trash bins) without the need for industrial composting equipment. Microorganisms in soil or trash bins could break down and compost the capsules within 28 days. Related packaging will also decompose within 90 days to achieve a circular economy.

Recycling is not omnipotent

But all in all, even though the technology of capsule recycling has advanced and may even be able to achieve a circular economy, the recycling process is still complicated. Significant energy consumption and carbon emission are inevitable. Taking a step back, capsules are not a necessity. Instead of finding ways to recycle or dispose of waste, it is better to reduce purchases as much as possible, or switch to more sustainable and reusable filter cups. Isn’t that more environmentally friendly to brew coffee?

Interested Topic:
Climate Change

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