Compostable coffee pods: are they really sustainable?

You love the idea of a coffee machine but are worried about the sustainability of what looks like a plastic coffee pod? Are there any fully compostable coffee pods?  Do they need to be sent to recycling or can you find home compostable coffee pods?  And are compostable coffee pods really compostable? 

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What are coffee pods made of?

Coffee pods are made of plastic or aluminum with a sealed plastic film lid that is pierced by the coffee machine when it is making coffee. 

Made popular by promotions in advertising featuring George Clooney as far back as 2006, the instant coffee pod market is expanding, and now makes up one-third of the coffee market (£13.9bn) in Western Europe (BBIA). 

Nils Leonard, co-founder of Halo “the world’s first fully compostable coffee pod”, says that around the world 39,000 coffee pods are produced every minute. That is 60 billion coffee pods annually and 80% of those coffee pods end up in landfill. 

The trouble is, says David Newman, an international expert on waste management and MD at the Biobased and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA) that even though the polypropylene and aluminum that go into a coffee pod are recyclable, most consumers don’t realize it. I didn’t, did you?

Plastic coffee pods can last for up to 500 years in landfill, according to WWF Australia and release harmful methane gas as they degrade. They recommend a reusable coffee pod instead.

Reusable coffee pods

Using a reusable coffee pod is not only better for the environment, it gives you a choice of coffee to add to your pod and enjoy. 

Sealpod is a stainless steel reusable coffee pod. The pods come with silicone lids or optional aluminum or paper sticker lids. Sealpods fit Nespresso and Dolce Gusto coffee machines and are available around the world through a distribution network. In the United States you can buy a Sealpod directly from Amazon or Ebay. 

If this seems like a faff, and let’s face it, most consumers buy coffee pods for the convenience of having something quick to use, the best alternative is a compostable coffee pod. 

Fully compostable coffee pods

Dualit makes fully compostable coffee pods from corn starch, a plant based renewable material. Dualit’s compostable coffee pods are not compostable at home, but all the components can be industrially composted. Simply put the capsule and the sachet into your food bin for your authorized council collection to compost. Dualit is a British manufacturer. 

Boyd’s Coffee Store stakes their claim on their packaging: “100% compostable coffee pods, seriously 100% compostable coffee pods” and we love that. The pod is made of bio-based renewable materials and the brown ring is made from waste coffee chaff, the skin of the coffee bean. It is designed to be fully compostable in municipal compost facilities. Boyd’s is based in Portland, Oregon. 

San Francisco Bay coffee calls their compostable coffee pods OneCUP. The mesh filter paper and paper ring are made of plant based materials. The coffee pods are BPI® certified commercially compostable and they are working on their home compostable certification. 

Cameron’s Eco Pods are made of plant based materials like beets and corn with a paper lid. The Eco Pods are compostable at municipal waste facilities and certified for industrial composting. Cameron’s says that although there is no certification for home compostable coffee pods, they have done their own testing and they are confident they will ‘break down into organic matter’.

Home compostable coffee pods

Halo has an excellent time lapse video on their website showing how their coffee pods decompose in garden loam at 15°C over two months. They compare their own pods with a petroleum based plastic, an industrially compostable bio-based plastic pod and a recyclable aluminum pod. You wouldn’t expect any of the latter to degrade in a standard garden compost and they don’t. 

So what is a Halo home compostable coffee pod made of? The capsules are made of sugar cane and paper pulp. They are packaged in 100% recyclable packaging – that’s both boxes, the oxygen wrap to keep it fresh, the insert and the sticky labels. Halo is UK based. 

Australian supermarket Coles has launched its own brand of home compostable coffee pods, called Urban Coffee Culture. The coffee pods are made of bio-sourced cellulose and vegetable oils and take around the same time to decompose as an orange peel. 

Coles General Manager Grocery Leanne White said “We know that very few councils accept compostable packaging in their council food and organics waste bin, which is why we have worked with our suppliers to find a coffee pod solution which customers can compost at home. Composting at home is also a great way for our customers to reduce the amount of food waste going into landfill.”

Are compostable coffee pods really compostable?

Some compostable coffee pods are compostable and some aren’t. As well as shopping around for a coffee pod that fits your coffee machine, it is worth taking a moment to look at the recycling instructions. 

Industrially compostable coffee pods are great, up to a point. They require that your local council or municipal waste provider has facilities in place for composting and not all of them do. So composting industrially compostable coffee pods is not an option everywhere. 

There are limited coffee companies that produce home compostable coffee pods. Companies like Halo and Coles have fully home compostable coffee pods to purchase. These are a great idea if you have the space for home composting and don’t want to add to municipal waste.