How sustainable are coffee capsules?
Which capsule is good for coffee and the environment?
Not a single gram of powder is wasted, and energy is saved during brewing: The eco-balance of coffee capsules is better than their reputation - as long as the recycling is right.
When it comes to energy consumption and the use of raw materials, capsule systems are therefore in a good position. When they are criticized, it is usually because of their packaging. No wonder: other foods are not even marketable without packaging. No one is surprised, for example, that yogurt has been on the refrigerated shelves in portion pots for decades.
For coffee, on the other hand, portion packs are a rather new invention. But they quickly became established on the market. And as popular as capsules have become, they still generate less waste than you might think - only 0.3 percent of the total packaging waste. As a result, capsules play only a tiny role in the total amount of waste.
This also applies to the life cycle assessment of the coffee capsule. Because here, the packaging does not play a major role. The Life Cycle Assessment takes a look at the entire value chain to get a realistic picture. This view shows: Most of the emissions occur during the cultivation of coffee. Coffee preparation is in second place. Packaging comes third.
Minimizing emissions during cultivation is therefore an important task for anyone who wants to produce coffee properly - regardless of whether the coffee is sold in bulk or capsules. Less energy is required for brewing and the powder is handled with care: this is where capsule systems already play out their advantages to the full. But how can coffee producers ensure that the role of packaging becomes even smaller?
It is important that recycling is done right. This has been solved exceptionally well in Germany: with the "Grüner Punkt" recycling system, every household can put its coffee capsules into the recycling system. Just like any other food packaging. This is ensured by the yellow bag, the yellow garbage can, and other recycling garbage cans. 100 percent take-back is possible and has been for decades.
This puts Germany ahead of the field in an international comparison. Other countries have some catching up to do. Their recycling systems are not quite as user-friendly. But even internationally, take-back capacities of over 80 percent are achieved. Where a good national system is lacking, it is more important for manufacturers themselves to lead the way. Like capsule pioneer Nespresso. They have been taking back used capsules in their boutiques from the very beginning.
Nespresso was the pioneer of coffee capsules. From the beginning, the brand has relied on aluminum as the material for its capsules - until recently.
To compost or recycle?
A quick coffee: With a capsule system, the process is super convenient. And it's even good for the energy balance. Most capsule machines are up and running quickly. There's no need for the long preheating process associated with portafilter machines. This is worthwhile wherever only a few coffees are brewed. Professionals in the catering industry may rely on portafilter machines. For home use, however, capsules are unbeatable. Not only in terms of energy. Also when it comes to handling coffee as a raw material. Capsules are precisely filled with exactly the right amount of coffee. Not a gram is scattered or wasted during preparation.
Recycling aluminum is simple. The recycled material is high-quality. Secondary aluminum has long been used for engine blocks, window frames, bicycles, and pans. Today, the result is tasteless - and so it is being used more and more for food as well.
But it's not just aluminum recycling that has improved. There are other innovations for different materials as well. And for some years now, research into renewable and compostable materials has been booming. In short, when you choose the right material for your coffee capsule today, you have a lot more choice than you did a few years ago.
When choosing the material, it must protect against oxygen, light, and humidity. Furthermore, the flavor must be preserved. Ideally, this is already ensured by the first layer, the primary packaging - in the case of coffee, the capsule itself. If the coffee capsule is properly sealed, it does not need an additional protective atmosphere, such as a bag around each capsule. High-quality primary packaging can thus make an entire layer of packaging obsolete.
When it comes to coffee capsule materials, aluminum is no longer the only choice. Capsule systems have ecological advantages. Packaging plays only a minor role. Anyone who relies on such a desirable and valuable raw material like aluminum for the packaging is therefore not doing anything wrong in terms of sustainability. Assuming the recycling is done correctly. But looking into alternative packaging might be worthwhile.