Are coffee pods better for the environment than you thought? New research offers surprising insights

Are coffee pods better for the environment than you thought? New research offers surprising insights

Coffee pods are often shunned due to the packaging waste they create. But new research suggests they might be greener than using a traditional coffee maker.

It is estimated that around two billion cups of coffee are consumed globally each day, with Europe accounting for around a third of this caffeine rush.

Capsule machines have taken off in recent years as an easy way to prepare coffee at home. Yet many perceive them as environmentally unfriendly due to the difficulty of recycling their single-use plastic or aluminium pods.

Researchers at the University of Quebec have looked beyond packaging to assess the environmental impact of coffee. They investigated the carbon footprint of several techniques used to prepare coffee at home.

The results, published in The Conversation, reveal that coffee pods aren’t the biggest carbon culprits.

What is the greenest way to make a cup of coffee?

The study took into account the entire lifecycle of a cup of coffee.

It calculated the greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural production of beans, packaging, transport, roasting and grinding, brewing, waste and even washing up.

Four popular ways of preparing coffee were put to the test: traditional filter, encapsulated filter (pods), French press and instant.

The results were clear: filter coffee carries the largest carbon footprint. This is primarily because it uses the greatest quantity of ground coffee - 25 grams to produce 280 millilitres, compared to 17 grams for French press, 14 grams for capsules and 12 grams for instant.

Filter coffee also consumes more electricity to heat the water and keep the coffee warm.

Soluble instant coffee came out as the most environmentally friendly option. This is due to the lower amount of coffee needed, lower electricity consumption from the kettle compared to a coffee maker, and absence of organic waste.

The results shift in light of the fact that most consumers use around 20 per cent more coffee than they need per cup, and heat twice as much water as is necessary, according to the researchers. With this in mind, coffee capsules win out as the greenest option because they ensure the optimal amounts of coffee and water are used.

Coffee capsules win out as the greenest option because they ensure the optimal amounts of coffee and water are used.

Producing 11 grams of Arabica coffee in Brazil emits about 59 grams of CO2 equivalent, write the researchers. Manufacturing coffee capsules and sending the waste generated to landfill, on the other hand, emits just 27 grams of CO2 equivalent.

How carbon intensive is coffee production?

Regardless of the type of coffee preparation, coffee production is the phase that emits the most greenhouse gases. It contributes between 40 and 80 per cent of the total emissions, according to the researchers.

This is due to the intensive irrigation and fertilisation systems required for commercial coffee growing, and the use of pesticides and nitrous oxide-emitting fertilisers.

Coffee produced by the least sustainable means generates as much carbon dioxide as the same weight of cheese and has a carbon footprint only half that of beef, according to 2021 research by UCL’s Professor Mark Maslin and PhD student Carmen Nab.

Adding dairy milk increases this footprint further.

How can you reduce your coffee’s carbon footprint?

While the onus is on producers and suppliers to address the most emissions-intensive stage of the coffee lifecycle, there are ways you can reduce its environmental impact too.

The University of Quebec research highlights the importance of avoiding overusing and wasting coffee.

To reduce the carbon footprint of your cup, measure out the recommended amount of coffee and water to reduce waste.

While a coffee capsule machine does this step for you, be careful not to over consume. The ease of making coffee in this way can lead people to double their coffee consumption, the researchers warn, reversing any environmental gains.

If you use a capsule machine, be sure to recycle your pods - or better yet, opt for reusable or compostable alternatives.

For filter coffee makers, avoid leaving the hot plate switched on. And when washing up, try using cold water instead of hot.

Reducing consumption is one of the best ways to reduce your coffee footprint.