Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
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.