The surprising environmental benefits of single-use coffee pods
While convenient and popular, single-use coffee pods are viewed by many as an environmental nightmare. But despite the piles of discarded capsules this brewing method leaves behind, it might not be as terrible for the planet as you think.
In some cases, brewing a cup of joe in an old-school filter coffee maker can generate roughly 1½ times more emissions than using a pod machine, according to an analysis by researchers at the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi in Canada.
The study adds to a growing body of research that shows assuming packaging does the most harm to the environment is often misguided. Instead, experts say, it’s important to look at a product’s entire life span — from the time it’s made to when it hits the landfill — to figure out which changes might have the biggest effect on improving sustainability. In the case of brewing coffee at home, this latest study shows that it largely boils down to not wasting water or coffee.
“As a consumer, what we’re left with is the visible waste in front of us, and that often tends to be packages and plastics,” said Shelie Miller, a professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, who was not involved in the new analysis. “But the impact of packaging, in general, is much, much smaller than the product itself.”
Here are four takeaways from research that can help you lower the carbon footprint of drinking coffee:
Less coffee = fewer emissions
The recent study, which looked at four common brewing techniques, found that instant coffee appears to produce the least amount of emissions when the recommended amounts of water and coffee are used. This is in part because there is typically a small amount of instant coffee used per cup and boiling water in a kettle tends to use less electricity compared to a traditional coffee maker. What’s more, the method doesn’t produce coffee grounds that have to be thrown out, according to the study’s researchers.
Traditional filter coffee, on the other hand, has the highest carbon footprint, mainly because more ground beans are used to produce the same amount of coffee, the researchers wrote. This method, the researchers noted, also tends to consume more electricity to heat the water and keep it warm.
“At the consumer level, avoiding wasting coffee and water is the most effective way to reduce the carbon footprint of coffee consumption,” said Luciano Rodrigues Viana, a doctoral student in environmental sciences at Chicoutimi and one of the researchers who conducted the analysis.
How you make coffee matters
The environmental impact of coffee is heavily influenced by how people prepare their drinks, Rodrigues Viana said.
For example, in the case of instant coffee, if you use 20 percent more coffee and heat twice the amount of water, which often happens, then the data suggests coffee pods might be the better choice.
Meanwhile, coffee-pod machines are typically designed to use the ideal amount of coffee and water, leading to less of both being wasted. Compared to traditional filter coffee, drinking about a cup of the beverage brewed from a pod saves between 11 and 13 grams of coffee, the data shows.
“Sometimes it’s really counterintuitive,” said Andrea Hicks, an environmental engineering expert at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She conducted a similar analysis comparing different brewing methods, and also found pods had less environmental impact than the conventional drip filter method, and in some cases were better than using a French press.
“Often people assume that something reusable is always better, and sometimes it is,” Hicks said. “But often people really don’t think about the human behavior.”
For instance, the latest analysis found the benefits of pods can be lost if their convenience encourages people to drink two cups instead of one.
There are other factors to consider: How your electricity is generated plays an important role, Rodrigues Viana added. A cup of coffee prepared using electricity mostly generated by fossil fuels produces about 48 grams of CO2 equivalent, the analysis found. In comparison, a cup made using primarily renewable energy emits roughly 2 grams of CO2 equivalent.
And other research has shown that adding milk can “drastically increase” the overall carbon footprint per serving.
Don’t fixate on packaging
To be sure, producing and discarding pods can have an impact on the planet. But studies show that the lion’s share of the environmental effects of drinking coffee come from producing the beans and the energy needed for brewing.
“Regardless of the type of coffee preparation, coffee production is the most GHG-emitting phase,” Rodrigues Viana and his fellow researchers wrote. “It contributed to around 40 percent to 80 percent of the total emissions.”
Packaging accounts for a much smaller share, the data shows. Here’s the math for pods: Manufacturing them and sending the used ones to a landfill generates about 33 grams of CO2 equivalent. Producing 11 grams of Arabica coffee in Brazil — the amount that can be saved by using a pod rather than brewing filtered coffee — emits close to double that amount: about 59 grams of CO2 equivalent.
But if you want to help reduce the impact of packaging, you can recycle used pods or switch to reusable ones.
Bottom line: Be mindful
All that said, the first thing to do might be to ask yourself if you actually want that cup of coffee and whether you’re going to drink all of it, Miller said.
“There’s not necessarily a really easy rule of thumb to tell consumers, ‘Here’s the best environmental option,’” Miller said. Instead, she recommends focusing on reducing waste and consumption overall and trying to be as efficient as possible with the resources you have.
“It really comes down to being mindful about the products that you consume and trying not to waste our products,” she added.
You can return to the main Market News page, or press the Back button on your browser.