Coffee capsules

How sustainable are coffee capsules?

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.

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.

A small part of all packaging

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.

One small component of the eco-balance

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?

The ideal: 100% recycling capacity

It is important that recycling is 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.

However, the recycling systems that make it easy are not used by all customers. Unfortunately, the take-back capacity is not yet identical to the actual take-back rate. But more and more customers are making use of the clean offer of throwing away coffee grounds and packaging in one. And so recycling has almost been the norm for years: with 100 percent take-back capacity, Nespresso in Germany achieved an actual take-back rate of 90.21 percent of capsules in 2014.

Which material for capsules?

Nespresso was the pioneer of coffee capsules. From the beginning, the brand has relied on aluminum as the material for its capsules. The approach at Nespresso is clear: "No other coffee capsule material we've studied can better protect the freshness and flavors of our gourmet coffees from light, oxygen, and humidity than aluminum."  

Until recently, this commitment to aluminum was also a commitment to primary aluminum. In other words, aluminum that was freshly produced from bauxite for the first time. For food, nothing else comes into question, they say. Nespresso has recently changed its strategy here. The goal from now on is: 80 percent recycled aluminum in the entire range, and 100 percent in the capsules of the Original and Vertuo lines.

Recycled aluminum is a much desired raw material

Recycling aluminum is simple. The recycled material is high-quality. Already in 2015, more than half of all aluminum demand was met from scrap. 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.

Alternatives to aluminum?

But it's not just aluminum recycling that has improved. There are other innovations for different materials as well. Plastics are improving constantly. More and more of them are now being considered for packaging high-quality coffee. 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.

Making secondary packaging redundant

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.  

Aluminum is a good choice

When it comes to coffee capsule materials, aluminum is no longer the only choice - but it's still one of the best. 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 correct.

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