The dark side of coffee pods: how they’re harming the environment

Are pod coffee machines bad for the environment?

With around a third of UK households owning a coffee pod machine, single-use coffee pods have become increasingly popular in recent years.

With their convenience and wide variety of flavours, it’s no wonder that more and more people are opting for this quick and easy way to enjoy their morning cup of coffee. However, as their popularity continues to rise, so does the concern about the pods’ environmental impact.

I love my daily cup of coffee but, as a big consumer of coffee pods, I was starting to wonder if my habit was having a detrimental effect on the planet and it got me thinking, are pod coffee machines bad for the environment? So I spoke with some experts to get their thoughts.

Old coffee pods filled with soil and a little sapling to illustrate coffee pods environmental impactCredit: Shutterstock/Ilina Yuliia

Why are coffee pods bad for the environment?

The environmental pitfalls

The packaging

Since coffee pod machines have become more popular, so have the worries about their sustainability.

“Many coffee pods are made from a combination of plastic, aluminium and other materials, which basically means that they are an environmental no-go,” explains William Farris, an expert in sustainability who is currently preparing for the Elcano Challenge, sailing 42,000 miles in a 50-year-old sailboat at the end of the year.

“In addition to potentially hazardous properties such as BPA, which is in most plastics, the single-use nature of these pods contributes to plastic waste – a significant environmental issue.”

Someone throwing a coffee pod in the binCredit: Shutterstock/nito

The problem with single-use plastic is that it takes hundreds of years to break down, and even then it never fully disappears. Instead, it breaks down into smaller microplastics that can be ingested by wildlife and enter the food chain. This has devastating consequences for marine life and can also have negative impacts on human health.

Energy consumption

You might think that using your coffee pod machine will at least cut down on energy consumption, but there’s bad news there as well, says Farris.

“If you are looking to cut down on your energy costs, pod machines will likely not help you get there,” he says.

“This is because coffee pod machines typically require more energy to produce a single cup of coffee compared with traditional brewing methods like drip coffee makers or French presses. This increased energy usage can have a negative impact on the environment, especially if the energy comes from non-renewable sources.”

There’s also the matter of the energy consumption that goes into creating the pods – from manufacturing them to packaging, shipping and ultimately recycling or landfilling, the carbon footprint is significant.

Where they’re sourced from

It’s not just the packaging that coffee pod lovers should be concerned with. Sam Smith, director of sustainable packaging company SmithPackaging, says it’s also important to know where your coffee beans have come from.

“Coffee grown using unsustainable agricultural practices can contribute to deforestation, soil degradation and water pollution, so it’s important to choose suppliers that are clear with where they source the coffee from and preferably offer the option to track this yourself,” he says.

Farmers harvesting Coffee beans of Arabica tree on Coffee tree to illustrate coffee pods environmental impactCredit: Shutterstock/Attasit Saentep

Sam Pearce, community manager for Chimney Fire Coffee, which roasts ethically sourced coffee beans in Surrey, says away from coffee pods and their environmental impact, there are other issues that need to be tackled within the industry.

“We are all aware of the negative impact of disposable cups on our planet, but as with any cash crop, waste and emissions are generated not at a single point but throughout its journey from bean to cup,” he says.

One study found that some coffees produce as much carbon dioxide as cheese per unit weight and have a carbon footprint only half that of beef – one of the worst offenders.


The pros of coffee pods

Convenience and less waste

While coffee pods seem to be getting a bad rap right now, Pearce thinks that it’s a bit unfair that they’re being blamed for a negative environmental impact. He says that in some ways they’re actually a really efficient choice – and not just for the ease of making a cuppa.

“They use a very small amount of coffee per serving (typically 5-6g per cup, as opposed to 16-20g for a double espresso) and additional waste through spillage and calibration is minimal,” he says.

Someone loading a coffee pod into a machine to illustrate coffee pods environmental impactCredit: Shutterstock/kasarp studio

Obviously, it’s also a great way to make a barista-style coffee in the comfort of your own home without the faff of making an espresso. I love having a daily cappuccino, something I know I wouldn’t bother making if I didn’t have my coffee pod machine.

They’re also generally a lot more affordable than espresso machines, which has again helped them rise in popularity.

Can coffee pods be recycled?

Yes, but it’s not straightforward

With big brands like Nespresso offering a free recycling service for their coffee pods, it seems that there is a solution to the single-waste pods. I collect all my pods and drop them off at my nearest Nespresso store. However, Farris says I shouldn’t get too excited that my pods are seemingly so easily recycled.

“While some coffee pod manufacturers claim their pods are recyclable, the reality is that recycling them can be difficult and complex,” he says.

“The multi-layered materials used in pods actually make them really challenging to recycle through regular municipal recycling programs and, as a result, many pods end up in landfills.”

This issue has led to brands creating their own compostable pods, which can then be easily recycled at home. Dualit is one of those brands that currently offers both compostable and fully recyclable aluminium pods for use in their coffee pod machines.

Dualit compostable capsules to illustrate coffee pods environmental impactCredit: Dualit

“If you’re a keen composter or live in an area which has dedicated food waste collections, then home compostable pods are ideal,” says Dualit’s marketing manager, Debbie McIvor-Main.

“With most brands, including Dualit’s, the whole pod and lid can be added to your composter or added to your food waste collections and generally will break down in 90 days.

There are also independent roasteries such as Chimney Fire Coffee and Blue Goose Coffee who offer biodegradable and compostable pods. You can also get a coffee pod subscription that includes recyclable pods.

How to recycle coffee pods

Recycling coffee pods can be a bit challenging as most recycling collections from homes do not accept single-use pods. However, there are some recycling schemes available for these items.

One such option is Podback, a nationwide coffee pod recycling service. Podback currently accepts pods from 11 coffee brands, including Nespresso, Nescafé Dolce Gusto, Tassimo, L’OR, and CRU Kafe. To learn more about their recycling process, visit the Podback website.

How to enjoy a cup of sustainable coffee

You can still get your coffee fix

Good news – even though coffee pods might not be the best option when it comes to environmental impact, there are still ways you can get your caffeine fix sustainably.

Enjoy your coffee black

In the UK, most of us enjoy a white coffee or even a cappuccino or latte, but if you want to reduce the carbon footprint of your cuppa, Pearce advises ditching the milk and going for a black coffee instead.

I hate black coffee, but I do sometimes use oat milk instead. It tastes nice in coffee and is more environmentally friendly than regular cow’s milk. Oat milk production is responsible for 70% less carbon per pint or per litre, compared with cow’s milk, and uses more than 90% less water in the production process. 

Choose the right type of coffee

If you want to ensure you’re making the least impact on the planet, go for a coffee roasted by a Certified B Corporation, such as Chimney Fire Coffee or Origin Coffee.

These are businesses that have undergone a rigorous assessment to meet high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency.

“This way you can be sure that work is being done to reduce emissions in every step of the process,” explains Pearce.

“That could be by using compostable packaging, eco-friendly deliveries, or reducing production waste. It also ensures that producers are being paid at the highest end of the global scale for their beautiful raw product.”

Someone pouring a cup of coffee from a French pressCredit: Shutterstock/Southworks

Pick a more sustainable brewing method

We’re not saying you have to ditch the coffee pods altogether, but you could alternate them with a more environmentally friendly method of making coffee.

“I recommend considering more sustainable coffee brewing methods, like a stovetop espresso maker for example,” advises Smith.

Other types of coffee machine to choose from for a more sustainable cup of coffee include a French press, a drip coffee maker or a traditional espresso machine that just uses ground coffee.

Don’t forget your cup!

While making coffee at home means you can use your own cups, don’t forget that there are ways of reducing your environmental impact when ordering coffee out and about.

“We are all aware of the negative impact of disposable cups on our planet, so keep a reusable cup to hand whenever you’re out and about – just in case!” says Pearce.

I have a Keep Cup that I take with me when I go out and about, just in case I need a caffeine fix on the go. It’s also great for taking my home brews out with me.

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Jayne Cherrington-Cook

Written by Jayne Cherrington-Cook she/her


Jayne is the Senior Editor at Saga Exceptional. She cut her online journalism teeth 24 years ago in an era when a dialling tone and slow page load were standard. During this time, she’s written about a variety of subjects and is just at home road-testing TVs as she is interviewing TV stars. A diverse career has seen Jayne launch websites for popular magazines, collaborate with top brands, write regularly for major publications including Woman&Home, Yahoo! and The Daily Telegraph, create a podcast, and also write a tech column for Women’s Own.

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