Ever been fooled by an artificial floral arrangement? Ever marvelled at the foliage only to discover that (upon closer inspection) the bouquet is in fact a fraud? Greenwashing works in a very similar way - brands harnessing deceptive marketing to persuade you that a product is environmentally friendly and therefore "better for the environment".
Sadly, many of these businesses assume consumers have their head in the sand, and in the coffee capsule industry in particular, we're certainly seeing these kinds of marketing tactics on the rise. Reassuring words like "recyclable", "biodegradable", "plant based" and "compostable" really put your mind at ease, right? But on a practical level, what do these terms really mean and are they actually as good as they sound?
We get that sometimes it's easiest to pop your first option in the shopping trolley and people are certainly trying their best to make the right choices, so it’s far from fair that everyday shoppers are being misled.
Don't be fooled by sneaky advertising techniques or confusing terminology and labelling - we've compiled the info you need to avoid being greenwashed. So, are the coffee pods you're using actually "green"? Let's find out.
RECYCLABLE COFFEE PODS
Most cluey consumers are becoming savvy to the fact that the solution that is "recyclable" coffee pods isn't as simple and wonderful as we've been led to believe. Unfortunately, the process of recycling capsules is neither convenient nor kind to the environment.
For many consumers, the rigmarole around recycling their pods prevents them from following through - it has been said that of the 13,500 capsule coffees consumed every minute, only 21% make it through to the recycling process. Some brands need to be dropped at specific collection points, posted directly to the company, or even require disassembling and cleaning before the components can be recycled separately - overall, the process is highly energy-intensive.
Perhaps because of this, the former Nespresso CEO estimates the worldwide rate of recycling for coffee pods to be less than 5%. Moreover, with the energy required to transport and process the capsules in a recycling facility, is this truly a sustainable option at all, or just a bandaid solution for a much bigger issue?
Ultimately, the problem is not whether they can be recycled or not. Of course it is better to recycle something than not, but the bottom line is that it's better to not produce the waste at all.
Problem = Recyclable pods cannot be recycled via domestic bins + the recycling process has a high carbon footprint
PLANT-BASED COFFEE PODS
Firstly, when it comes to pods what does "plant-based" even mean, and what's it got to do with how the capsule is disposed of? To the average person, it sure sounds wholesome, lovely and positive - but are they a better choice than disposable, plastic pods?
Well, the main claim you'll usually find here is that part of the pod packaging contains certain percentage of plant-based material. Often, the materials will be derived from a renewable resource, such as corn or sugarcane. However, if you look closely, often these are also labelled as "degradable". Here's the kicker: degradable is not to be confused with biodegradable or compostable, because anything that is degradable will not fully break down into the soil when it ends up in landfill. Instead, it turns into tiny pieces of plastic that will never break down, contributing to the micro plastics issue we're currently battling in our waterways and oceans.
Essentially, chemists have engineered a way to make the same plastic-like molecule from plants (like sugarcane). So there is a small benefit that it's harvest is more sustainable, with lower emissions as compared to oil.
The pods containing any organic material will break down anaerobically, which will cause methane emissions, which are many times more virulent as greenhouse gases than CO2. Essentially, when these end up in landfill or our environment, they cause more harm than good. In our humble opinion? This is probably not a great option.
Problem = The majority of plant-based pods simply degrade into small micro plastics
BIODEGRADABLE & COMPOSTABLE COFFEE PODS
This is where things get complicated. Compostable and biodegradable - they're kind of the same, but kind of... not. With sustainability "trends" on the rise, biodegradable and compostable coffee pod options are now plentiful. Packaged beautifully with "greener" messaging playing a key role, they sure do look great on the outside.
But let’s break this down (pun intended): Products that biodegrade or compost can certainly be great for reducing waste, if disposed of correctly. However, just because a product is labelled as "compostable", it doesn't necessarily mean that it will break down in your home compost.
Generally, coffee pods made entirely of bioplastics require commercial composting (industrially high temperatures, moisture levels, and UV light) to decompose within any reasonable time frame. Even still, these materials can leave behind micro-fragments and toxic residues.
It's a little-known fact that, unfortunately, it's unlikely your home composting system has what it takes to break down your biodegradable pods. Some councils provide industrial composting through their kerbside green waste collection, however they may prohibit products labelled biodegradable or compostable, so it's vital that you double-check. Always be sure to check with your local council to see if they accept bioplastic first before disposing.
So if you were after a coffee pod that's safe to put straight in your compost bin, we can understand how this could be confusing. Some red flags to look out for (in fine print on the back of packaging, or at the very base/footer of a website) are lines like:
"They are recyclable and biodegradable, but not compostable."
"In order for compostable capsules to break down in 90 days, capsules must be processed through an industrial composting facility." or
"Please contact your local council before disposing in your green bin."
When it comes to compostable products in general, ideally you want to look for products that are Australian certified as “Home Compostable” by the Australian Bioplastics Association, ensuring they're labelled as safe for composts, are made from vegetable material and are plastic free - phew!
Key takeaway? If it looks and feels like plastic, always research and read the fine print on how to compost each brand before you buy.
Problem = Most biodegradable & compostable pods require industrial composting facilities to breakdown
LASTLY, REUSABLE COFFEE PODS
As you know, every item requires raw materials to be mined/grown/manufactured, processed, packaged, and shipped. This is quite an energy-hungry, short life for a such a small portion of coffee. The energy output of manufacturing is so great, that no single-use item can compare to a reusable product - even if it’s recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable.
The best thing we humans can do for the environment is to consume less. This reduces not only our waste, but also the energy expended in producing a product. Consuming less is something to keep in mind for all aspects of life. So when it comes to a pre-portioned pack of coffee, reusable capsules get this right. The more your pod is reused, the more sustainable each cuppa.
Aside from being able to choose your favourite brand of coffee, there's one more secret bonus to filling your own pods: it's much more cost-effective than buying disposable pods. So if you're on a tight budget, invest in a pack of reusables and watch your savings roll in.
In saying this, when it comes to reusable, it's still important to be greenwash-aware. Something to remember when shopping for any reusable product, is that quality and longevity are key - cheaper, unfortunately is rarely "better". Some red flags to look out for:
• Flimsy plastic reusable pods with an extremely limited lifespan (e.g. 30 uses)
• Plastic reusable pods that are not BPA free, food safe etc
• Reusable pods that come packaged in plastic
• Pods from any business or website that doesn't provide any information on it's sustainability practices (just because a product is "naked" on the shelf, doesn't mean it's upstream supply chain was pollution-free)
And this is where we're here to help. If you're environmentally conscious, you'll already be wary of "hidden" plastics in the supply chain - simply selling an eco-friendly product doesn't necessarily mean the business behind it is sustainable. At Crema Joe, we have a genuine passion for the planet, so since our launch in 2014, we've endeavoured to have as little impact on the environment as possible. We:
✓ Are committed to a responsible supply chain
✓ Ship our products via either pre-loved or recyclable packaging
✓ Utilise secondhand equipment & furniture at our HQ
✓ Choose minimal packaging for our products
✓ Focus on product quality over quantity
✓ Stock BPA free products that meet the highest food safety & durability standards, and
✓ Are committed to providing exceptional customer service
So! We hope this has helped to debunk the façade, assist you in spotting the eco-jargon and becoming a conscious consumer so that the decision making is a little easier when you next go shopping.
Our coffee capsule users are now helping to save over 11.5 million pods from landfill yearly, and we hope you will join the sustainable coffee pod movement too! (Available for Nespresso, Aldi K-fee, Dolce Gusto, Caffitaly & Vertuo.)