Coffee pods may be a convenient way to get through the morning, but as a single-use plastic that often winds up in landfills, their environmental impact can’t be ignored.
The plastic materials used in many coffee pod brands can take hundreds or thousands of years to break down, which means that your morning cup of coffee could have an impact on the environment for decades to come.
Thanks to a research project based out of the University of British Columbia, however, coffee drinkers may be able to reduce these negative environmental impacts in the near future. Zachary Hudson, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Chemistry at UBC, has spent the past three years creating a more environmentally friendly, fully compostable coffee pod that launched for consumer purchase earlier this year.
Protecting the environment (and your coffee’s flavour)
“Every year more than 40 billion single-use coffee pods end up in landfill,” Hudson explained in a press release. “If they’re made of plastic, they could be sitting there for hundreds or thousands of years. We wanted to create a compostable pod to tackle this problem — and make sure the coffee still tasted great.”
While creating an environmentally friendly alternative to coffee pods may sound straightforward, there are a number of difficulties that come with moving away from plastic.
Recyclable materials have to be separated and completely cleaned of any remaining coffee grounds, which can be a barrier to coffee-drinkers who are in a rush. What’s more, recycling standards vary across the world, meaning that a material that may be recyclable in one location may not necessarily be recyclable in another.
In theory, compostable pods could be one way to get around these issues. Rather than separating each individual component, consumers could simply throw the entire pod (along with any residual coffee grounds) into their compost bin and wait for it to decompose naturally.
In practice, however, there are a number of difficulties that come with creating fully compostable coffee pods.
One of the main challenges for manufacturers lies in creating a strong material that can hold enough coffee grounds while preserving the taste of the coffee. For example, many compostable pods currently on the market use a mesh bottom that doesn’t protect the coffee from air and moisture, which in turn causes the coffee to go stale.
“Coffee drinkers are very discerning: if you make a product that is good for the planet, but the coffee tastes bad, they’re going to lose interest pretty quickly,” said Hudson. “We want our pods to be the best of both.”
What’s more, many compostable coffee pod alternatives are not fully compostable: they’re embedded with harmful microplastics that remain in our ecosystems long after the rest of the pod has decomposed.
Hudson’s goal was to create a fully compostable coffee pod that solved both of these problems — in other words, a pod that did not contain microplastics, and that protected the coffee grounds from going stale or losing their flavour.
Bioplastics provide a solution to plastic pollution
To get around these challenges, Hudson and his collaborators decided to create a coffee pod using bioplastics. These are materials that are similar to ordinary plastics, but that are made up of organic biomasses such as wood or plants, and can therefore be composted.
“We started out by importing bioplastics from overseas and trying them out for the pods we wanted to create,” Hudson explained. “This helped us learn which materials worked well and which didn’t.”
In the end, the team settled on a design that had a bioplastic-based interior and bamboo-based exterior. The bioplastic they used was a new material that the team created for the project, and was composed of polylactic acid — a biomass made up of corn starch and sugar cane — mixed with other natural resources.
The result is a fully compostable coffee pod that takes only 35 days to decompose, which is much less than the hundreds or thousands of years that a traditional plastic-based pod would spend in a landfill. The pod also doesn’t leave any microplastics behind.
By surrounding the bioplastic with a bamboo exterior, Hudson was also able to keep the coffee grounds fresh. The bamboo shell did a much better job of sealing out air and moisture than mesh-based alternatives, and also kept the pods themselves from getting soggy and clogging up the coffee maker.
The coffee industry as a whole still has a long way to go towards making sure that our consumption is both sustainable and equitable, but Hudson’s compostable pods are a concrete step that coffee drinkers can take in this direction. And while Hudson has focused on British Columbia-based composting standards so far — the pods were tested at the Surrey Biofuel Facility, which handles local composting — he hopes to expand to the rest of the country soon.
“We are now making our own bioplastics at our facility in Surrey, and are looking to bring significant bioplastics manufacturing capacity to Canada.”