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Are coffee capsules really such an environmental problem? How good are compostable capsules? You can now listen to everything on the subject in the new podcast "Live better. Sustainable everyday life with the Environment Commissioner" with Melitta Varlam and Alexander Dallmus or read here.

By: Alexander Dallmus

Status: 07.12.2020 | archive

Whether it's café-to-go cups, plastic waste or coffee capsules made of aluminum, many consumers have become more sensitive to rubbish in recent years. This is also a problem for the big players like Nespresso. Sales have recently not increased quite as sharply as in previous years.

But first a few facts and figures:

Coffee consumption in Germany

  • Germans are passionate about drinking coffee - an average of around 166 liters per year (2019 according to the German Coffee Association). That corresponds to around a billion cups.
  • There are around 700 coffee roasters in Germany. Besides Dallmayr, Jacobs, Tchibo and Darboven, Aldi is one of the largest.
  • While coffee used to come exclusively from the pot, individual servings are being used for brewing coffee, especially in companies but also in more and more households. Either in cellulose pads, plastic or aluminum capsules. Nevertheless, the market share for 2016 in Germany was only 14 percent (German Coffee Association) for capsules and pads combined.
  • We use more than 5.6 kilos of roasted coffee per person. The "whole beans" segment in particular, for portafilter and fully automatic machines, grew in 2019 (15%).
  • More than a third of the world's coffee harvest comes from Brazil. Far behind (17.5% / 2018), but certainly surprising for many: Vietnam.
  • Even the comparatively high price does not deter coffee drinkers. Whoever buys the brands - such as "Nespresso" - pays between 38 cents and more for an aluminum capsule (depending on the variety). Since there are usually around 6 grams in a capsule, a kilo of coffee can easily cost over 60 euros. Even if you use cheaper pods from the discounter, a kilo of coffee costs a good 13 euros, well above the current market price.

The best alternative: refillable coffee capsules

There are now several suppliers who offer reusable capsules, i.e. refillable coffee capsules. It's now also very easy, says Thomas Fischer from Deutsche Umwelthilfe: "Now some people think it'll take a long time, you have to stuff in there somehow and that's not practical. But on the contrary. Everyone who deals with reusable -Coffee capsules once in a while, you will notice that you can fill such a coffee capsule in ten to 15 seconds. So that's much faster than you think. " And the cup of coffee is cheaper anyway.

As far as the guarantee of the capsule machines is concerned, however, the manufacturers no longer feel they have an obligation if their machines are damaged by third-party capsules. That shouldn't usually happen, but you should know.

Video: refilling coffee capsules yourself

How environmentally friendly are Nespresso capsules?

Market leader Nespresso has therefore reacted and in 2017 presented a large-scale study that is intended to compare the environmental impact of coffee from coffee cultivation and preparation to the waste of capsule, filter and fully automatic coffee in a life cycle assessment. The research institute Quantis (which has also drawn up life cycle assessments for BOSS and UEFA) comes to the conclusion - not entirely surprising - that capsule coffee can compete ecologically with other types of preparation, if not even better. TÜV Rheinland has at least confirmed that the calculations made are correct and proper. But nothing more.

Are coffee capsules harmful to the environment?

Life cycle assessments are always relative and it depends on which aspects and criteria have been taken into account and which - often for cost reasons or problems with comparability - have been left out. Nespresso did not publish the entire study either, only a summary. For competitive reasons, as they say.

Aluminum capsules consume a lot of energy in their production.

The basis of the comparison is that three cups of coffee are brewed twice a day. In addition to the coffee cultivation and the energy consumption of the machines, recycling is of course also positively taken into account. Achim Drewes, spokesman for Nestlé: "We take note of the current discussion with concern because there is also a major misunderstanding behind it. From our point of view, coffee capsules are not waste, they are recyclable."

Can coffee capsules be recycled?

The problem: Even Nestlé has no way of knowing how many of the capsules it has sold will actually be put back into the cycle. But that is a very decisive factor. The general informative value of such a comparative study is therefore limited. In fact, aluminum is easy to recycle. For scrap aluminum, the energy used in production is reduced by 90 to 95 percent. So 5 to 10 percent of the original energy consumption would remain and would also improve the environmental balance of coffee capsules. BUT: however high the return rate may be, the production of coffee capsules is always dependent on new aluminum. Not only are the sealing foils made of it, a small part of it is even required for aluminum recycling products. Of course, that's not really sustainable.

And even without an eco-balance, there is a problem in terms of proportionality: The approximately six grams of coffee are encased in around 4-5 grams of capsule plus outer packaging.

The aluminum problem:

The production of aluminum is anything but environmentally friendly. Extracting around 1 kilogram of aluminum from bauxite requires an enormous amount of energy. The power consumption is a good 14 kilowatt hours, which alone releases 8 kilograms of carbon dioxide.
In turn, around 1,000 aluminum capsules can be formed from one kilogram. That sounds like a lot. But if you calculate that around eight billion capsules are currently sold each year - an estimated - that would require at least 8 million kilos of aluminum. Coffee drinkers use capsule machines to produce more than 15 kilograms of aluminum waste every minute.
The fact that bauxite is mined in aluminum production, rainforest cut down, landscapes destroyed and toxic red mud created is not even taken into account.

Alternatives on the market

More than 30 coffee capsules are available in Germany, some of which also fit in Nespresso machines. Coffee roasters such as Dallmayr, Darboven or Jacobs as well as the discounter Aldi and Lidl sell these capsules. There are now even refillable reusable capsules.

One of Nespresso's biggest competitors on the German capsule market is Tchibo. Tchibo's QBO system capsules are made of plastic, says Arndt Liedtke: "These capsules are very small. Very compact. With less material. They consist exclusively of recyclable prolypropylene plastic. They do not contain any aluminum and can be recycled using the yellow bag. " Sounds good, but here, too, the optimal recycling rate is questionable, says Mirko Kaiser from the magazine "Ökotest": "However, the question is always whether these capsules actually end up in the yellow bin, ie are they recycled? Or do they end up in the recycling bin in the residual waste, then they will be incinerated anyway. "
You can read about the difference in how we prepare our coffee here: Coffee Ingredients

Compostable Coffee Capsules - Are They Better?

There are now also providers in Germany who specifically advertise offering compostable capsules. But are they really better?

The Swiss producer "Ethical Coffee Company", which was founded by the former Nestlé manager Jean-Paul Gaillard, was already a pioneer many years ago. The capsules made from cellulose fibers were sold mainly in France and Switzerland. The founder is now only a shareholder in the Nespresso competitor and the business with alternative capsules can be neglected. There is also no longer a German company that wanted to conquer the market with biodegradable coffee capsules from Bremen.

If you take a closer look at the product descriptions of the various suppliers, it becomes clear that often not everything on the capsule is actually compostable. For example, the lid is often made of conventional plastic. For Thomas Fischer, cycle expert at DUH, it ultimately makes no difference. The problem: The approximately six grams of coffee are encased in around 4-5 grams of capsules plus outer packaging. "At the end of the day it doesn't matter whether it is plastic or bio-plastic. The ratio of the material used to the product is so bad that all in all, very small amounts of coffee produce incredibly large piles of garbage." Greenwashing calls this the German environmental aid. Because even if the coffee capsule is made of cellulose, corn starch or other degradable substances, it is only used once for a short time and then ends up in the garbage.

When does bio-plastic disintegrate in the composting plant?

The legal requirements for biodegradable plastics are clearly outlined. According to DIN standard EN 13432: Complete biodegradability, compostability and after 3 months no more than 10% of the product must remain. Many bio-plastics only decompose under laboratory conditions in accordance with this DIN standard, but modern composting systems work differently, complains Günter Langer from the Munich waste management company (AWM). Because the processes there go faster, bioplastics are sorted out. However, this would mean that most of the biodegradable bio-plastic packaging - like conventional plastic waste - would be incinerated. The positive effect of compostability would therefore be lost. Ultimately, the employees of the disposal companies cannot distinguish between bioplastics and conventional plastic at first glance. When pre-sorting everything ends up in the residual waste and is incinerated.

Is there really any compostable plastic? This question also arises with many other objects in our daily life, such as plastic bags. Read about it: Plastic degradable

Yellow bin or capsule deposit

Brand leader "Nespresso" praises the advantages of aluminum. Aluminum is tasteless and can withstand the high brewing pressure of up to 19 bar. Nestlé has also had its capsules licensed for the dual system in Germany, i.e. the used capsules should be put in the yellow sack or bin and then sent for recycling. In order to properly separate the garbage, consumers would actually have to empty the capsules (residual) in order to give the material a better chance of being recycled. To do this, some customers use the "Outpresso", a kind of tongs into which the capsule is placed and which squeezes the coffee powder out when pinching. But in reality, only very few will do that. And, as already mentioned, there are no reliable figures as to how high the recycling rate for aluminum capsules actually is.

A kind of deposit system for coffee capsules is also repeatedly discussed, although Nestlé tends to reject it, with reference to the dual system. Even the Federal Environment Agency cannot find a workable solution. A kind of special capsule levy can also hardly be enforced.

Capsule market leader Nespresso announced at the end of 2020 that by 2022 every cup of Nespresso coffee, for both private and business customers, will be climate neutral. As one of the numerous measures, it was also emphasized that Nespresso products should be made more recyclable. This also includes an increased use of recycled plastic in Nespresso machines and of recycled and low-carbon aluminum in coffee capsules. However, details of how the aluminum in the capsules in particular should be better used with a higher recycling rate were not mentioned.

One thing is clear: business is still going well at the parent company Nestlé. The production of Nespresso coffee capsules is expanded. For example, the plant in Romont, Switzerland, will be expanded for 150 million euros from June 2021.

Disposal advantage for pads and filters

Drinking coffee with a clear ecological conscience is not that easy.

Incidentally, according to the German Coffee Association, 65 percent of them still brew their coffee in the classic way with the filter. If you dispose of the filter bags, you will not harm the environment. They can all be thrown into the organic waste or the compost heap. The filters also rot.

The packaging of the soluble coffee powder can be recycled: you should always throw it in the yellow bin - you will only produce 0.2 grams of waste per cup of coffee. Compared to other systems, the filter bag takes first place!

With coffee pods, the outer packaging is the bigger problem.

Pads harm the environment primarily through their packaging. A coffee pad can also be thrown in the organic rubbish. But: The packaging has a negative impact on the pads: 0.8 grams of waste is caused by each cup of pad coffee. In comparison, pads are more damaging to the environment than traditional filter bags.

Water consumption when growing coffee

What makes coffee enjoyment ecologically questionable in the first place is the cultivation of coffee itself. Coffee generally has a poor ecological balance. Primeval forest may be cleared for cultivation, fertilizers and pesticides used. They pollute the groundwater and reduce biodiversity. The water consumption is enormous! The production of 1 kilogram of roasted coffee requires around 21,000 liters of water. These are per cup - attention !!! - more than 140 liters. (For comparison: A quarter liter of tea needs 30 liters of water in production). If you add up what is incurred during cultivation, transport routes and preparation, around 50 to 100 grams of CO2 are produced per cup.

The days of filter coffee from the machine seem over.

Coffee from sustainable cultivation is still a niche product, but not only organic shops, but also supermarkets have it in their range. If you want to drink environmentally friendly coffee, you cannot avoid organic coffee. And then - according to the result of a Swiss study from 2011 - coffee from the espresso pot, soluble coffee and traditional filter coffee (provided the pot is drunk empty) do the best. When it comes to life cycle assessment, they are the winners. In the individual servings, the coffee in the pulp pad leads the ranking (2011 study - Eidgenössische Materialprüfungs- und Forschungsanstalt EMPA).

Which coffee is the most environmentally friendly?

A conscious choice of coffee is definitely best for the environment. Anyone who buys coffee with sustainability labels is definitely drinking the more environmentally friendly coffee. This also applies to capsule coffee, although powder from sustainable cultivation is only slowly gaining ground there.

Coffee growing has a bad ecological balance.

In the worst case, coffee cultivation accounts for around 70 percent of the environmental impact of a cup of coffee, in the best case it accounts for just one percent. So it starts with the right choice of the right coffee.

Which is better: capsules or pads?

The bottom line is that filter coffee is still the most sustainable form of coffee enjoyment, followed by fully automatic machines, and pods are still better than capsules for individual servings. Because of the different amounts of material in the capsules and their packaging, there are very large differences on the market. In the case of an average coffee, the capsule accounts for around a quarter of the environmental impact. Relatively heavy plastic capsules and those that are also individually packaged perform worse. If aluminum capsules are recycled - and only then - are they equal.

Capsule machines can clearly score points, as the study by Nestlé from 2017 underscores, albeit in terms of portioning. As described here, the cultivation, transport and roasting of the coffee itself make up a large and essential part of the life cycle assessment. Overproportioning, as is the case with filter machines, of course, does not occur with capsule machines.

With over three billion coffee capsules sold, Mirko Kaiser from the magazine "Ökotest" calculates: "The coffee capsules that are produced in Germany alone are enough to circle the earth one and a half times. And that is also a very vivid example. where you can see how much ends up in the trash somewhere. "

Anyone who already has a capsule machine and would like to keep it shouldn't be fooled by the green promises made by the providers. Any packaging, any product that is only used once is problematic. Whether plastic or bioplastic is no longer important. Reusable is therefore always the better alternative. "These reusable capsule alternatives, which can be reused very quickly," says Thomas Fischer from DUH, "have not been on the market for long, and they are not even widespread. Only came at the end of last year really practicable and quickly fillable reusable capsules. " In terms of taste, everyone has to test for themselves how the coffee powder, consistency and quantity harmonize best.

Podcast "Live better. Sustainable everyday life with the Environment Commissioner"

You can listen to all episodes or subscribe to the podcast at any time and free of charge in the BR Podcast Center, iTunes, Spotify and the ARD Audiothek.
You can find all the episodes for reading on the overview page "Live better. Sustainable everyday life with the Environment Commissioner".

Further links on the topic of coffee capsules:

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