Coffee is not something most people want to part with in the name of sustainability.
So, with biodegradable coffee pods and cups emerging in the market, there have been moves to make it greener.
But you might be wondering if biodegradable coffee pods are really eco-friendly.
Many of them are actually biodegradable and made from plant-based, renewable resources, which is promising.
Here’s what you need to know about how eco-friendly biodegradable coffee pods really are.
1. What Are Biodegradable Coffee Pods Made Of?
The exact materials biodegradable coffee pods are made of vary per brand.
Regular coffee pods are made from metal or plastic, so biodegradable coffee pods need to be made from something sturdy, so they don’t fall apart or leak.
They are typically made from biopolymers or bioplastics, like PLA, which is derived from plant-based sources, like cornstarch.
Unlike regular plastic, these materials do not come from petroleum.
Some of these biopolymers are composed of glucose and lignin. Others contain sugarcane and sugar beet or cornstarch and paper pulp.
2. Are Biodegradable Coffee Pods Recyclable?
Biodegradable coffee pods are usually not recyclable.
You cannot put coffee pods in your recycling bin, regardless of whether they’re biodegradable.
Recycling facilities do not have the means to separate the coffee grounds from the pod.
Not to mention, the plant-based ingredients making up the pods are unlikely to be recyclable.
Some brands might offer a collection service to recycle or dispose of used coffee pods, whether they’re biodegradable or not.
3. Are Biodegradable Coffee Pods Really Biodegradable?
Coffee is biodegradable, but whether the pod is actually biodegradable depends on a few factors.
With reports claiming that many kinds of biodegradable products actually aren’t biodegradable at all, it’s natural to be skeptical of so-called sustainable coffee pods.
Generally, plant-based coffee pods are biodegradable, but they need to be disposed of appropriately in order to break down.
They cannot just degrade in any environment.
So, this may mean sending them to an industrial composting facility or back to the company, which might have its own systems in place.
4. Are Biodegradable Coffee Pods Compostable?
Coffee is compostable, but a biodegradable pod might not be.
In order to be compostable, the item must degrade into organic matter.
So, whether these are compostable – and in particular, home compostable – depends on what they are made from.
Most kinds of PLA can break down in industrial composting facilities.
In this environment, bioplastics, meat, and other items unsuitable for home compost bins are heated up so bacteria can break them down.
Some kinds of PLA may degrade in soil but much slower than composting.
It’s not recommended to dump PLA in your yard or in nature as this can contribute to pollution.
Wildlife, on land or in waterways, can mistake PLA products for food. They can starve if it does not break down in their digestive system since their stomach has no room for food.
There are some kinds of home compostable PLA, but they are relatively new, so you might not find home compostable PLA coffee pods.
So, chances are, if you have PLA coffee pods, you will need to send them to an industrial composting facility.
Pure paper pulp is compostable as long as it has not been dyed or bleached, as these can leach harmful substances.
Although there are natural dyes, like milk paint, you might not find dyed coffee pods due to concerns about the color leaching into the coffee.
You’re unlikely to find pure paper pulp coffee pods, so the other ingredients may impact whether it is home compostable or compostable at all.
Glucose is compostable. Lignin does not seem to degrade in compost completely but may be able to break down industrial composting plants.
Research on cutlery made from bamboo and sugarcane determined it was compostable.
Not only is sugar beet compostable, but it may actually improve compost quality in terms of pH levels, consistency, and more within 20 days.
Materials made from cornstarch and corn husk powder are biodegradable and can fully break down within 21 days.
PLA is typically made from cornstarch, but as mentioned earlier, PLA is not home compostable.
5. What Happens to Biodegradable Coffee Pods?
Biodegradable coffee pods should degrade if they are disposed of responsibly.
The pod should degrade in a matter of weeks, releasing the coffee grounds, which are also biodegradable and compostable.
Only put biodegradable coffee pods in your home compost bin if the packaging explicitly states they are home compostable.
Unfortunately, many brands are vague about the exact materials used in their pods, which makes it hard to determine if they can go in your compost bin.
So, most kinds of biodegradable coffee pods will need to be sent to an industrial composting facility.
Unfortunately, many people do not have access to these facilities. In this instance, they need to go in the general waste bin.
However, these pods will not break down in landfills. Even if the materials are biodegradable, this process cannot occur if the right conditions are not met.
Landfills do not have the correct temperature, soil nutrients and bacteria, oxygen levels, moisture, and weather conditions for biodegradation.
Instead, biodegradable coffee pods can produce methane in landfills, contributing to the greenhouse effect.
6. Are Biodegradable Coffee Pods Reusable?
Coffee pods are usually not reusable. This is because the lid of the pod is sealed to the body, so you cannot open it and put more grounds in.
Plus, the coffee machine sometimes pierces a hole in the top of the pod when brewing, so reusing it could affect the quality of the drink if it can no longer extract as much from the coffee grounds.
With that said, some people separate the lid from the capsule and reuse the pod by covering it with tin foil.
When it comes to biodegradable coffee pods, you should not reuse them as they might start breaking down due to the high water temperature and start leaching into your coffee.
7. How to Dispose of Biodegradable Coffee Pods Correctly?
The best way to dispose of biodegradable coffee pods depends on the brand.
If the pods explicitly state they are suited to home composting, you can put them in your compost bin.
Otherwise, you can take or send them to an industrial composting facility.
Some brands might offer a collection service to ensure the pods are disposed of correctly.
If none of the above is applicable, you will need to put them in your general waste bin.
8. Are Biodegradable Coffee Pods Sustainable?
Standard coffee pods are made from metal, usually aluminum or plastic.
Metal is non-renewable. Mining for metals can pollute the air, soil, and water in the surrounding environment and displace animals in the area.
Not only does mining for metal have a high carbon footprint, but making products with the metal requires a high amount of energy.
Given that the US and virtually all other countries still primarily rely on non-renewable energy sources like coal and natural gas for electricity, this is not sustainable.
Plastic is neither renewable nor biodegradable.
And unlike metal, plastic can only be recycled a limited amount of times before the quality has deteriorated too much.
So, eventually, all plastic is landfilled or incinerated.
PLA production requires less energy than standard plastic production, while biodegradable materials such as sugarcane use even less energy than PLA.
So, biodegradable coffee pods are promising if they are made from renewable ingredients.
9. Are Biodegradable Coffee Pods Better for the Environment?
Biodegradable coffee pods are a step in the right direction since they are made from renewable ingredients.
As mentioned earlier, plant-based materials like sugarcane and PLA have a lower carbon footprint than regular plastic.
Although they are not recyclable, they should actually break down if disposed of properly, unlike plastic and metal, which are not biodegradable.
3 Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Biodegradable Coffee Pods
Reusable Coffee Pods
Reusable coffee pods are usually made from metal or plastic.
These pods can be opened and filled with coffee grounds. After the coffee has been brewed, you can open them to remove the grounds and reuse the pod.
Although metal and plastic have a carbon footprint, using reusable coffee pods reduces the demand to produce new products.
Even though biodegradable coffee pods are made from more sustainable ingredients, they will still require energy and resources.
In the long term, reusable coffee pods will save energy and resources.
Biodegradable Coffee Tea Bags
You can also buy coffee grounds in the same material as tea bags.
The main concern with biodegradable coffee pods is that they’re not always suited for home composting, and not everyone has access to an industrial composting facility.
Biodegradable coffee tea bags are more likely to be suited for home composting since they are made from thin paper pulp or cotton.
You need to ensure these are completely plastic-free and home compostable.
Mini French Press
If you’re considering buying a coffee machine for coffee pods, the greener choice may be a mini French press, which is suited for one cup of coffee at a time.
Rather than buying dozens of coffee pods, you simply buy one large bag of coffee grounds or beans.
This saves on the energy and materials required to make each coffee pod.
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