Used Nespresso coffee pods. Wikimedia Commons/Andrés Nieto Porras

The German city is believed to be the first in the world to ban the pods on environmental grounds.

In January, German fast-coffee addicts got bad news: as part of larger sustainable procurement guidelines, the northern city of Hamburg banned the purchase of coffee pods, and the single-serve machines that use them, for all government-run buildings, including offices, schools, and yes, even universities (where the need is most dire).

According to NPR, Hamburg’s Department for the Environment and Energy said the pods represent “unnecessary resource consumption and waste generation.” Fortunately, other varieties of coffee—the drip kind, for example—are still permitted under the guidelines.

The city is believed to be the first to in the world to ban the government purchase of coffee pods outright. "Our objective is to increase the share of environmentally friendly products significantly, in order to help combat climate change,” Jens Kerstan, the city’s senator for the environment, told CNN.

How bad are coffee pods for the environment? Nespresso, the leading European coffee pod maker, has declined to say how many of its capsules are recycled each year, but the company sold an estimated 27 billion pods between the product’s launch in 1986 and 2012. Sales of single-serve coffee pods have rocketed in the last five years. Today, Nespresso told the BBC, the company has the capacity to recycle 80 percent of its used capsules, with 14,000 pod drop-off points in 31 countries. (The company’s goal is 100 percent recycling capacity by 2020.) But even if the diligent people of the world have been recycling that full 80 percent of pods for thirty years (and they haven’t), a lot of those cute and delicious packages of used grounds have wound up in landfills. A Hamburg official said the pods are particularly difficult to reuse because they’re made of aluminium and plastic, which must be separated before the pods can be processed and turned into something else.

Piotr Barczak, the waste policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau, told the BBC that the coffee pod damage is done the moment the product hits store shelves. “The point with coffee pods isn't about recycling—it's about cutting down on the amount of stuff that we need to throw away or recycle,” he said.

And though Nespresso argues that the single-serve pods actually save on grounds and water, especially as compared to conventional drip coffee, a 2009 life-cycle analysis of the entire coffee-making process found a more planet-friendly alternative. It might not make you happy, but here it is: instant coffee. As The Atlantic’s James Hamblin wrote in a 2015 piece on the Keurig, the brand of single-serve coffee more popular in the U.S., “it’s unlikely that many people will switch to instant, or abandon coffee altogether in favor of caffeine pills or energy drinks. ...So the demand for a quick, easy, customizable, single-serve delivery mechanism will march on.”

The greenest Germans will skip the water-intensive coffee crop altogether. And good luck to them, for I’m on my second cup today.

H/t: Smithsonian

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: subway in NYC
    Transportation

    Inside Bloomberg's $1 Trillion Infrastructure Plan

    Drawing on his time as New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg proposes handing power and money to urban leaders as part of his Democratic presidential bid.

  2. Environment

    Neighborhoods With a History of Redlining Are Hotter on Average

    Housing discrimination during the 1930s helps explain why poorer neighborhoods experience more extreme heat.

  3. photo: a couple tries out a mattress in a store.
    Equity

    What’s the Future of the ‘Sleep Economy’?

    As bed-in-a-box startup Casper files for an IPO, the buzzy mattress seller is betting that the next big thing in sleep is brick-and-mortar retail outlets.

  4. Transportation

    In Paris, a Very Progressive Agenda Is Going Mainstream

    Boosted by big sustainability wins, Mayor Anne Hidalgo is pitching bold plans to make the city center “100 percent bicycle” and turn office space into housing.

  5. photo: San Francisco skyline
    Equity

    Would Capping Office Space Ease San Francisco’s Housing Crunch?

    Proposition E would put a moratorium on new commercial real estate if affordable housing goals aren’t met. But critics aren’t convinced it would be effective.   

×