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Coffee & Sustainability

The problem with single-use coffee capsules

By Coffee & Sustainability

“It’s like a cigarette for coffee, a single-serve delivery mechanism for an addictive substance,” said John Sylvan, the co-inventor of Keurig more than 30 years ago, explaining the appeal of single-use coffee capsules. “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it.”

Convenience, ease of use and consistency are surely the reasons for coffee capsules enormous success. You pop your capsule into the machine, a few seconds later you enjoy your coffee. You throw it away without thinking twice about it.

But in the past decade people have become more conscious about the environmental impact of their habits and the coffee capsule industry has come under scrutiny.

In 2014, a video titled “Kill the K Cup” came out and caused an uproar against Keurig. A parody of Hollywood alien invasion movies, it criticised the volume of unrecyclable capsules produced by the American company the previous year, which it claimed, could encircle the Earth 10.5 times.

How many coffee pods are sold each year?

Keurig Green Mountain sold around 13.2 billion capsules in 2018 alone, according to Statista. 2015 was the last year public data was available for the company, which had sold 10.5 billion units in the previous year.

Other leading players are Nestlé (Nespresso and Dolce Gusto) and JDE (Tassimo, L’Or, Senseo). Finding official numbers on how many units are produced and sold each year is increasingly difficult nowadays and mostly based on data from research companies. In fact, Nespresso’s last official data was released in 2012. By then it had sold 27 billion single-use capsules worldwide.

Since 1986, when Nespresso invented the first coffee pod, the single-serve capsule business has flourished constituting 34% of the entire coffee sales (Euromonitor, 2014). 41% of Americans own a single-serve brewing system today. And even though the golden age of coffee capsules has passed – between 2011 and 2016 the market had seen an average annual growth of 18% – the business is still projected to grow by 5% each year by 2021.

The price of convenience

The incredible success of coffee capsules and pods has spread throughout homes despite its costly nature, and consumers might not even realise it.

How do people drink coffee around the world? Read about coffee rituals and traditions

Containing around 9 gr of coffee, one of the cheapest and most popular K-cups is Green Mountain Breakfast blend selling at about 0,62$ per cup. That means that 1kg of coffee comes at a price of around 68$. But for more expensive ones the price can reach just under 100$.

And the coffee in Nespresso can cost even more. At 0,71$ per cup, Nespresso’s Original Line Espresso capsules can make you spend 140$ for 1kg of coffee.

Compared to some of the most expensive ground coffee supermarket brands available like Illy, which cost around 30$/kg, the price of coffee in capsules is twice or even more than 4 times higher.

One could argue that it is literally the price of convenience and of a freshly-brewed cup at home thanks to the small air-tight containers. However, those little containers, used once and discarded, are exactly what’s wrong with the system.

Even companies who produce them know it by now and have tried to put systems in place to circumvent the issue. Their major strategy is recycling. But what’s wrong with that?

Let’s have a look at the major approaches.

Keurig Green Mountain

Until 2016, Keurig’s capsules were almost impossible to recycle.

Firstly, they were composed of four different layers of materials which needed to be separated and sorted accordingly. Secondly, one of the materials was #7 plastic, a mixed plastic polymer, which is harder to recycle and to make into new products.

So in 2016, Keurig started producing plastic #5 pods and, by 2020, all their pods should be recyclable. On their website, they explain the process in three “easy” steps: peel away the foil, empty the capsule, throw it in the bin.

But there’s a catch!

Every time they write the word recyclable on their page there is an asterisk next to it that leads to the phrase “please check locally. Not recycled in all communities.”

There are three big problems with their approach.

  1. Most municipal collecting and sorting plants are not designed to work with such small objects, but rather with cans and similar. This applies to all capsules in general and not just Keurig’s. So, unless they’ve got specific systems in place, they’ll mostly end up in landfills.
  2. Unless the capsule is thoroughly cleaned of organic material, it’ll add contaminants to the recycling process, making it ineffective (they might end up in landfills) and more costly, weighing mostly on taxpayer’s money. “We’re committed to continuing working with them and trying to find a solution, but telling people something is recyclable when it’s not accepted in the recycling program is just making the (contamination) problem worse right now,” says Jim McKay, Toronto’s city official in charge of recycling.
  3. All this means that a big part of the responsibility is still left to the consumer. But if one of the most appealing aspects of single-use pods is that it allows the consumer to be “lazy”, can industries really rely on their average customer to put in the time and effort to make recycling effective?

Other companies are trying to lift the burden off the consumer’s shoulders. Or at least giving them the illusion that it is so.


Setting aside Nestlé’s Dolce Gusto capsules which are made out of plastic and for which the same problems mentioned above apply, Nespresso has put in place a recycling programme for its aluminium capsules (like Original Line and Vertuo) in 44 countries.

In 6 of these, consumers can dispose of the capsules in their recycling bins. In 15 countries they can ship them off back to Nespresso through the postal system for free. Otherwise there are 122 287 collection points worldwide where you can drop off the used capsules.

There is no need to empty or wash out the capsules, you just throw them as is. In theory, not a bad scheme. Unless you live in one of the countries where you need to drop off the capsule at a collection point and they’re not very close to your home.

Italy Nespresso collection points

As you can see from the map indicating collection points in Italy, while there might be a higher concentration in the North and around big cities, if you’re living in the provinces of the South you might just end up disposing of them in your general waste bin.

So, how effective is Nespresso’s recycling programme?

While Nespresso focuses on its potential capacity to recycle, which is 86% worldwide, its recycling numbers are much lower.

In 2017, Nespresso “valorised” 56% of their used capsules. That means, first of all, that 44% of their capsules end up in landfills. Of the collected capsules, some are used in energy production, only 24.6% are actually recycled. While the coffee is used to produce heat, biogas and compost, most of the recovered aluminium is used in other various projects.

And that is another problem with their system.

Aluminium is a great material because it is potentially infinitely recyclable. But Nespresso doesn’t use recycled aluminium for their capsules. They claim that their capsules require a “specific alloy of aluminium”—alloy 8011 that is not found in recycled aluminium and one of the only sources are recycled Nespresso capsules.

Yet, they don’t use their recovered capsules to create more. They only promote a circular approach when it “makes environmental and economic sense”. Since they started testing the feasibility of a capsule-to-capsule approach in 2015 they’ve produced 10 million capsules (let’s say they produced 10 bn capsules that same year, that would be just 0.1%).

Thus, most of their aluminium comes from virgin material. And while recycled aluminium is quite easy to recycle, ore extraction is highly energy intensive, consuming incredible amounts of water, electricity and resources.

In the US, half of the electricity consumed in the smelting process comes from coal, one of the most polluting fuel sources known to mankind, reports RecycleNation. Extraction of raw bauxite also means reducing native vegetation thus causing loss of habitat and biodiversity, while contributing to soil erosion. Toxic materials from processing also end up in aquifers compromising water quality. High amounts of greenhouse gas (likecarbon dioxide, perfluorocarbons, sodium fluoride, sulfur dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) are also released during smelting and processing.

And while Nespresso has made a pledge towards sustainable aluminium sourcing, the use of virgin aluminium still uses 95% more energy than recycling it.

So, on the one hand, despite the company’s efforts, almost half of the capsules sold keep ending up in landfills either due to gaps in their collection system or in the inherent “laziness” of their typical customers. On the other hand, the single-use approach is still making use of invaluable energy and resources which could be avoided.

To bypass all these issues, many companies have turned to producing compostable and biodegradable capsules, which come with their one problems.

Compostable and biodegradable capsules

First off, let’s get the terms right.

Biodegradable refers to any material that will disintegrate in water, soil or air over time with the help of organisms like bacteria and enzymes. This can happen in a short time or it can take years.

On the other hand, compostable also refers to something that breaks down in nature, but it has to increase the nutrient levels of the soils. It also has to disintegrate quite quickly and at the same rate of the other materials which are being composted.

“But there is currently no legal requirement for how long this decomposition should take, only an industry standard set by the American Society for Testing and Materials. It stipulates that materials must break down completely in six months or less in a commercial compost facility,” TheGuardian reports. And there is only one company which releases compostable certifications in the United States.

So, even if it says so on the box, your biodegradable capsules might still be a problem. Some might not be compostable at all, some might be compostable in processing plants but not in at-home composting, needing specific conditions of heat and humidity. And some might not be processed completely by your city’s particular processing system.

The same can be said from biodegradable plastic which is not recycled with normal plastic, something that can generate confusion in the consumer who might end up throwing it in the wrong bin.

So what’s the solution?

Ditch single-use

As we have seen business models which depend on single-use (plastic or other) focus on recyclability as a solution to the incredible quantity of materials they sell. Materials which need to be extracted, processed, produced, shipped, collected and recycled consuming enormous amounts of energy and resources, while creating pollution and often weighing on the public system and on the taxpayer’s money, even when they work. Which they rarely do.

There are some alternative options for at-home espresso making like reusable capsules that handle the problem at the source by producing little or no waste: some have removable plastic or sticker lids to throw away; others, like Waycap, are long-lasting and leave behind no refuse except for the spent coffee grounds.

Sure, they take a little time and effort to fill and clean. However, this might not be more of a hassle than accurately emptying single-use capsules for effective recycling, or shipping them back or taking them to collection points.

And while of course the price of a refillable capsule is higher than that of single-use capsules when you buy them, the first might be more cost effective in the long term when you compare the price of loose coffee with the price of coffee in pre-packaged pods.

In the end, everyone will find the most appropriate solution for their needs based on their priorities, whether it’s time, convenience or price. But at this point in time we can’t avoid factoring into our choices the environmental impact of our habits and to make ecologically sound decisions we need to admit that there needs to be a radical reduction of single use products worldwide.

For Greenpeace, the solution needs to be “a shift away from throwaway dependant modes towards a new business model that priorities the reduction of raw material needs, through alternative product designs and long-living and reusable products.”

That is the sustainability of the future.

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drawing of asian palm civet or luwak

Kopi Luwak: civet coffee aka the infamous poop coffee

By Coffee & Sustainability, Info Pills

What is Kopi Luwak?


Kopi Luwak literally means palm civet coffee in Indonesian and, even though it is one of the most expensive coffees in the world, it is elegantly known as “poop coffee”. Originating in Indonesia, it is also produced in the Philippines and Vietnam.

The palm civet is a shy and nocturnal animal sometimes described as cat-like (in fact, it is occasionally called civet cat) but more poetically, perhaps, as the hybrid mix of a “bastard love child of a ferret and a lemur … with your house cat”. Its diet usually consists in plenty of juicy fruits as well as the odd insect and reptile here and there.

But most importantly for us, the luwak has a sweet tooth for coffee cherries, of which is said to pick only the best and ripest, guided by its amazing sense of smell. Then, after a day, a day and a half, the coffee beans come out the other end almost intact but, of course, covered in faeces.

And that’s when things get interesting.

Humans walking around the jungle look for the civet’s droppings and collect them, then wash the beans, process them and sell them for a whole lot of money. Voilà: Kopi Luwak.

How much money exactly are we talking about?


How much does Kopi Luwak cost?


Kopi Luwak generally costs up to 300 dollars per kg although some high-end brands sell it for 2000 dollars a kg, like Ross Kopi from Indonesia. Not too shabby for crappy coffee!

Why is it among the most expensive coffees in the world?

Wild Kopi Luwak is quite rare with only small quantities processed each year. In theory, the luwaks roam freely and eat at night away from prying eyes, so for a farmer stumbling around fresh “produce” in the jungle requires a good knowledge of territory but also quite a bit of luck.

And of course wild civets are also not going to chew truckloads of coffee just so people can make drinks from their scat. Unless their forced to, but this is a topic for later.

Next question is: what makes it so special?

By Jack [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr


What does Kopi Luwak taste like?


The flavour of Kopi Luwak is mainly defined in terms of earthy and musty with hints of caramel and chocolate and some people throw around the word “jungle” as if it were a flavour descriptor.

Apparently though, for the poop coffee enthusiasts, the taste depends upon a number of factors such as tree variety, soil type, seasonal fruits eaten by the civet, so that each small batch is unique.

Above all, what makes Kopi Luwak special is the fact that it’s ingested, digested and defecated by the palm civet.

How does this influence the flavour?

First of all, as we said before, the civet is thought to be particularly picky in regards to the cherries it eats and choosing the most mature fruits is the basis of a quality cup.

Secondly, the fruit undergoes a fermentation process during the animal’s digestion where enzymes break down some of the protein contained in the bean. Because protein is the element that gives coffee its bitter flavour, the result is supposed to be a smooth cup of coffee without any unpleasant aftertaste.


What does coffee taste like? Learn how to use the Coffee Flavour Wheel


Is Kopi Luwak safe to drink?


While indeed the beans collected from the excrement show higher levels of contaminations, the processed beans are quite safe to drink with no contamination from e.coli or other bacteria.

But is Kopi Luwak worth its price?

By surtr [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


All that glitters is not gold


Not everyone agrees with the hype about Kopi Luwak. In fact, it has received some harsh critiques by esteemed reviewers.

After a taste test, renowned cupper Rocky Rhodes of International Coffee Consulting Group reportedly said “it was apparent that Luwak coffee sold for the story, not superior quality”. More explicitly, Andrew Hetzel, from the Specialty Coffee Association of America, writes that “Kopi Luwak coffee is a gimmick, a fairy tale fabricated to sell gullible consumers bad coffee at extraordinarily inflated prices”.



Kopi Luwak and animal cruelty


It would appear that while removing the bitter taste, the luwak’s digestion also lowers the good acidity and flavour. With Kopi Luwak, all the attention is given to one step of a process that should consider the quality of the bean, the terroir, the harvesting and so on. Achieving a smooth cup cannot be the exclusive defining element for a quality coffee.

What’s more, the novelty aspect of this coffee has had dire consequences for these little animals. As demand rose, people started caging wild luwaks in confined spaces, often in dismal conditions, feeding them only coffee cherries. The consequences are stress, illness, and a higher mortality rate for the animals.

There is still no way of telling for sure whether Kopi Luwak is from wild or caged civets and no official wild luwak certification, even though some efforts are being made in this direction, by organizations, farmers and even the guy who introduced Kopi Luwak to the West. On the other hand, a lot of what is sold as original Kopi Luwak just isn’t.




It is really up to you whether you want to try one of the most expensive coffees in the world, with the risk of it being either fake or made by exploiting caged civets. You can also try looking for responsible, sustainable farmers that will ensure wild and humane coffee, although these projects are still  veryfew.

But above all, would you try it?

11 amazing ideas to recycle used coffee grounds

By Coffee & Sustainability

All around the world people consume millions of cups of coffee every day — 94 million cups a day in the UK alone!

But what to do with all the leftover coffee grounds? Let them accumulate in landfills?

Starbucks, for example, has been offering theirs to customers for free with their Grounds for Your Garden program since 1995.

Instead of thinking about them as waste, used coffee grounds can be a valuable material for many household uses: in your garden, for beauty products, for arts and crafts projects.

So, read on and discover fantastic ideas for using spent coffee grounds around your house!


In the garden


In compost

Coffee grounds are a good source of organic material and are rich in nitrogen so they are great for your compost. They can be considered as green material in a similar way to grass clippings.

Compensate with brown material such as sawdust, leaves, paper or cardboard. Make sure you mix them with other green material: a diverse feedstock will ensure a diversity of microorganisms. Too much will actually be harmful to bacteria and worms.


don’t add too much coffee grounds to your compost bin or it might have detrimental effects. Linda Chalker-Scott, MasterGardener at Washington state university, suggests as an optimal amount 10 to 20% of the total volume and not more.

What about using coffee grounds directly on cultivated soil?

As mulch

Chalker-Scott advises against using pure coffee grounds for mulching.

First of all, because coffee grounds are easily compacted, preventing air and water for seeping into the soil.

Secondly, even though experiments in the lab have shown enhanced sugar beet seed germination and improved growth and yield of cabbage and soybeans, it is not known what their effects are in the field.

In fact, decomposing coffee grounds can release toxins that might even inhibit plant growth and seed germination of most plants. They could actually be good against weeds.

So, don’t use pure coffee grounds as mulch, especially directly on plant roots.

Instead, try using a thin layer (no more than half an inch) of coffee grounds and cover with a thicker (four inches) layer of coarse organic mulch like wood chips.

Against slugs and pests

You might have heard that coffee grounds are great for keeping slugs and even cats from messing around with your precious garden. While this is most likely unverified information, using a spray solution with 1-2% caffeine on leaves does indeed kill off most molluscs.


Against odours


Used coffee grounds can be used to absorb odours. Just place them in an open container at the back of your fridge or freezer and forget about them as you collect more used grounds. Empty the container after a week or so.

You can even use them around the house or in your car. Let them dry first by spreading them on a baking tray. Then, place them in a stocking and tie a knot making it into a ball. You can wrap the stocking around the grounds more than once to make sure the coffee doesn’t seep out.

Moreover, you can keep a bowl with coffee grounds near the sink to rub your hands with to get rid of the smell of garlic or fish.


In your beauty routine


As a scrub

Use as a natural scrub on its own or mixed with a bit of honey and coconut oil. It’ll be more delicate on your skin than non-natural exfoliants and you won’t be polluting the environment with nasty microbeads.

As a facial

Coffee has astringent and antioxidant properties which make for a great toner reducing redness and tightening the pores.

Mix the grounds with milk or heavy cream until you get a paste and gently rub it on for a minute. Then sit back and relax for another 20.


stay away from the area around your eyes where the skin is thinner and more delicate.

Against cellulite

Beware of coffee scrubs as magical “cures” for cellulite. Cellulite is a change in how the fat under your skin is shaped making it look lumpy or dimply like an “orange peel”. Almost 80 to 90% of women have cellulite and it is not a disease in any way but many dislike the way it looks.

Unfortunately, even though caffeine has been shown to break down fat cells in (really) high concentration, it’s very difficult to make it reach those cells through topical creams.

The good news is:

coffee grounds body scrubs do seem to reduce the appearance of cellulite for a week or so after use. Caffeine’s astringent properties tighten up the skin while exfoliating increases microcirculation plumping up the skin making cellulite look less obvious.

Coffee scrub soap

Why not use the exfoliating properties of coffee grounds in a delicious smelling soap?

It’s easy!

Melt 225 grams of glycerin soap into a metal and glass bowl placed on top of a pan with boiling water, creating a double boiler. While the soap melts thanks to the vapour’s heat, lightly grease some muffin tins or prepare your molds.

When the soap has melted turn off the heat, add 25 grams of coffee grounds to the melted soap — you can add more or less depending on how “scrubby” you want it!

Now, you can also add essential oils like vanilla and a bit of coconut oil to make the soap softer on your skin if you like.

After mixing everything thoroughly, you’re ready to pour the mixture in your molds. Be careful as it’s still hot.

Once they’ve completely hardened, pop the bars of soap out of the molds. Wrap them in parchment paper for the perfect gift for coffee lovers!


For arts and crafts


Wood staining

Using coffee grounds for wood staining is incredibly cheap, simple and gives you a nice organic effect.

You’ll need a jar, some steel wool, gloves and, of course, your used coffee grounds.

Place the steel wool in a jar with a small amount (2-3 tablespoons) of vinegar, water to cover it and the coffee grounds. Leave to soak for at least two hours, but overnight works best. Of course the more you leave it in the darker the stain will get!

Why use steel wool and vinegar?

The iron will dissolve in the vinegar creating a solution (iron acetate). The substance reacts with the tannins in the wood making it darker. This allows the coffee stain, that would fade away quickly in sunlight, to be durable indoors and outdoors.

Once the solution is ready apply a coat of stain to the wood, either with the steel wool itself or with a paintbrush. Use gloves for this step as it can get quite messy!

Let dry for 20-30 minutes and repeat. To have a darker stain you can repeat the process, but wait for each coat to dry first as the stain looks darker when wet.

Paper staining

Coffee grounds are a great way to create an aged paper effect for greeting cards, an antique notebook, or a pirates’ map!

Place coffee grounds in a tray and fill with boiled water. Let it steep for 5 minutes. The intensity of colour depends on the amount of coffee grounds, but you can always go back and add more.

Add a sheet of paper to the tray and let it sit for at least five minutes.

When the paper is a shade lighter than you’d like it to be, take it out of the coffee. It will darken as it dries.

Hang it to dry or lay it on a sheet of plastic. Be careful at this point as the paper is fragile when wet. I suggest using paper of a heavy quality for best results.

Once dry press it under a pile of heavy books to flatten it.

Easter egg dying

Dying hard-boiled eggs for Easter is a fun family tradition, a great way to spend time with your kids involving them in a creative activity — especially if it’s green and safe!

You can use natural dyes from all sorts of products you can find in your fridge or pantry, like spices, fruits and vegetables for different colours.

One of them is coffee grounds!

To give your eggs a natural brown shade mix one cup of coffee grounds with one cup of boiling water in a jar. Add one spoon of vinegar to set the colour. Dip in the hard-boiled egg and leave to steep for not more than an hour or the colour might start to seep through the shell.

After the egg is dry you can rub it in cooking oil to give it a nice shine!

Experiment with the quantity of coffee grounds for different intensities. And you’re ready for Easter!


Now, you’re ready to go forth and create something from (almost) nothing!