The German city of Hamburg has banned coffee pods from state-run buildings as part of an environmental drive to reduce waste. Should others follow suit, asks Chris Stokel-Walker.
First there was the coffee bean, then the instant coffee jar, and then expensive coffee shop drinks on the go.
In the past decade or more coffee drinkers worldwide have adopted a new method of getting their daily jolt of caffeine – the coffee capsule machine, in which small plastic or aluminium pods capped with foil or filter paper containing coffee grounds are put into a machine that fills a cup quickly with palatable coffee.
But increasingly the single-serving coffee pods, which Nespresso first sold in 1986 in four flavours, are attracting critics who say they are an environmental menace.
As part of a guide to green procurement, the German city of Hamburg last month introduced a ban on buying “certain polluting products or product components” with council money. The ban includes specific terms for “equipment for hot drinks in which portion packaging is used” – specifically singling out the “Kaffeekapselmaschine”, or coffee capsule machine, which accounts for one in eight coffees sold in Germany.
“These portion packs cause unnecessary resource consumption and waste generation, and often contain polluting aluminium,” the report says.
“The capsules can’t be recycled easily because they are often made of a mixture of plastic and aluminium,” adds Jan Dube, spokesman of the Hamburg Department of the Environment and Energy.
The complexity of the packaging – often a mix of different materials – combined with the dregs of organic waste from unused ground coffee sitting in the bottom of the pod makes them difficult to process in standard municipal recycling plants.
There are other issues. “It’s 6g of coffee in 3g of packaging,” says Dube. “We in Hamburg thought that these shouldn’t be bought with taxpayers’ money.”
Jens Kerstan, Hamburg’s senator for the environment, said that the move, which is part of a bigger environmental drive, sends out an important signal. “With a purchasing power of several hundred millions of euros per annum, the city can help ensure that environmentally harmful products are purchased less frequently.”
It’s not just German politicians who feel this way. One in 10 Britons polled by Harris Interactive for The Grocer, a supermarket trade magazine, said that they believed “coffee pods are very bad for the environment.” At the same time, 22% of those asked said they owned a machine.