Millions of people wake up each day and start their morning with espresso or coffee from a coffee pod machine like a Keurig or Nespresso machine. In fact, 27% of American coffee drinkers own a single-serve coffee machine. With all the capsules the machines go through, though, lots of users wonder if Nespresso is bad for the environment.
It turns out that Nespresso is not bad for the environment.
The reasons are complex, and not always obvious. This article shares lots more details about the environmental impact of Nespresso machines and other single-serve coffee machines, and how they can be unexpectedly good for the environment (at least versus other alternatives.)
Throwing Away Nespresso Capsules
Lots of people probably feel bad about using a Nespresso machine because they brew coffee from a Nespresso pod once, and then throw the pod away. That feels like a wasteful act. It can feel especially bad if you use more than one capsule to brew your morning cup of coffee.
Personally, I use at least 2-3 Nespresso Original Line capsules to brew a cup of coffee or a latte. A single shot doesn’t do it for me, so I end up using a lot of capsules each day, especially if I’m making coffee for multiple people or making milk-based drinks like lattes.
Again, this means throwing a lot of capsules away after one use. That feels somehow wrong, or environmentally damaging. But is it?
Recycling Nespresso Capsules
Nespresso capsules, it turns out, are fully recyclable. The capsules are actually made using aluminum, which is one of the most recyclable materials available. It can be melted down and reused an almost unlimited number of times.
You can’t just throw Nespresso capsules into your regular recycling bin, though, unless you live in certain places like New York City. Nestle invested over $1.2 million helping upgrade the city’s recycling facilities to handle its capsules, which means New Yorkers can now recycle them in their normal recycling.
For everyone else, you’ll need to work a bit harder. Still, recycling Nespresso capsules is easy. Just request a recycling bag from Nespresso. The bags are free, and they hold up to 200 capsules. Fill your bad with capsules as you use them. You can store the bag in the freezer to stop it from smelling.
When it’s full, you can either send it back to Nespresso or take it to a local Nespresso store. They’ll separate out the aluminum, melt it down, and transform it into other items. It’s part of a bigger trend towards single-use coffee recycling. Even Keurig made its K Cups fully recyclable, moving to using #5 plastic instead of #7.
Why Coffee Capsules Help the Environment
Recycling capsules definitely makes using Nespresso coffee makers feel more palatable. Is this just an example of “greenwashing” though? Are we making ourselves feel better by recycling the capsules, when really we should be avoiding them altogether?
Not necessarily. According to reporting from Wired, single serving capsules can actually be better for the environment than traditional coffee. Why? Traditional coffee, especially when it’s brewed with a permanent filter, generates less waste on the consumer’s side. You’re not discarding a little hunk of plastic or aluminum each time you brew a cup of joe.
But traditional coffee generates much more waste on the producer’s side. That’s primarily traditional coffee is less efficient than single-serve coffee. When you brew single-serve coffee from a Nespresso pod, you tend to make only the amount of coffee you actually need. Your coffee maker is also actively heating the coffee for a very short time—usually less than a minute.
Traditional Coffee Is Surprisingly Wasteful
In contrast, when most consumers brew traditional coffee, they add way too many grounds for the amount of water they’re using, Wired’s sources shared. That wastes grounds.
They often brew too much coffee, too. How many times have you brewed a big container of coffee, only to throw away half because no one drank it? All of the grounds used to make that undrunk coffee are wasted, too.
Finally, consumers often leave their coffee makers on way beyond the end of the brewing cycle, which wastes electricity. My own traditional coffee maker is still on right now, even through its brewing cycle finished 20 minutes ago.
These factors combine to lead to lots of environmental damage from traditional coffee brewing. Much of the coffee that producers grow–with all the carbon footprint, agricultural land use, and transport required to grow it–goes to waste when consumers brew it the old-fashioned way. So does the electricity consumers waste by leaving traditional coffee makers on for minutes or hours beyond the end of the actual brewing cycle.
With capsules, more of the coffee that producers grow actually ends up being used, and less is wasted. Nespresso machines also often use less power than traditional coffee makers since they heat water only briefly, saving electricity.
Pod Coffee Like Nespresso is Better for the Planet
When you take all these factors together, it turns out that single-serve coffee makers like Nespresso are actually better for the environment than traditional coffee brewing methods. (The only thing that beats pod coffee makers is instant coffee, which is the most efficient type.)
The waste from discarded pods can be damaging, sure. But it’s still less damaging to the environment than all the wasted coffee that gets thrown away during traditional brewing.
Single-serve coffee just feels worse because we see the waste happening, in the form of discarded pods. We don’t see the waste that happens when producers grow coffee that doesn’t get used, or when power plants generate power that’s wasted on running a traditional coffee maker for too long. In reality, though, that waste and damage is present even if we can’t see it.
How to Drink Single-Serve Coffee in an Environmentally Responsible Way
If you really want to reduce the environmental impact of your coffee consumption, then stop drinking coffee. Not interested in doing that? Me either!
Alternatively, consider getting a single-serve coffee maker like a Nespresso maker. Use Nespresso’s recycling program (or your local program, if you live in New York City) to recycle the pods once you use them, cutting down on your impact. Power your Nespresso maker with green power by opting for a 100% green plan if you utility allows it.
Using single-serve pods may feel wasteful. But the research indicates that for most consumers, it’s actually the better environmental choice.
You can browse Nespresso makers at Walmart, where they have good prices on the often-expensive machines.
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