Single-serving coffee pods without the whiff of guilt
The patented pod is the first of its kind to be wholly biodegradable; the result of five years of strategic, top-secret research that the company pursued jointly with Italian biopolymer company Novamont and Turin’s Polytechnic University.
The organic breakthrough comes as a consumer backlash is percolating over the waste from used pods, fueling demand for guilt-free single-serving coffee.
“We have always been interested in innovation – we made an espresso machine to send up into space, and now we are investing in research that allows us to close the coffee circle,” said Marco Lavazza, group vice-president of the coffee-maker. “This shows there is synergy in Italy between private partners, the government and university research.”
The compostable pod will be highlighted in the Italy pavilion at Milan’s Expo this year, along with new commercial applications for “end of life” coffee waste in products such as ink, odour control clothing, cosmetics, stove pellets and even as “super humus” for edible mushrooms. Speaking ahead of Expo in Milan, Gianluca Galletti, Italy’s environment minister, welcomed the coffee sector innovation as an inspiration. “We will exit our economic crisis because of what we are able to invent and bring to the market, especially in the circular economy,” he said.
Sales of single serving portioned coffee machines have increased sixfold since 2008, making up three quarters of coffee machines sold in 2014.
Lavazza and Nespresso are market leaders in Europe, with families who make three cups a day spending more than £300 a year in capsules. In the US, the Keurig machine has fueled the sale of more than 9 billion K-cups, which are neither recyclable or biodegradable. With global sales of coffee pods in the billions, the result is enough rubbish to circle the planet more than ten times.
Eschewed by traditonal coffee maker loyalists, the pro-pod coffee crowd touts the variety and convenience of the tiny single-serving containers – just pop one into the specialised coffee maker and presto, an easy pre-dosed brew is served while the empty shell disappears quietly into the machine’s collection receptacle.
The pang of sustainable coffee drinker guilt comes later – when it is time to throw away the mountain of accumulated plastic or aluminum cups.
The new patented compostable pod represents a 70 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, its makers say. The pod is made from a material called Mater-Bi 3G which is a patented bioplastic produced from wild thistle in three plants in Sardinia and certified for organic recycling according to EU compostable packaging standards.
Inside is a quarter ounce (7g) of Rainforest Alliance-certified ground Arabic coffee beans. A compostable capsule espresso is smooth and strong, with no guilt, and far more importantly, with no odd aftertaste.
This was one of the biggest challenges for researchers – assuring the plant-based pod did not affect the flavour and odour. But coffee and scent are intertwined more intricately than just the smell of freshly brewed espresso.
“I’m glad the lining of the jacket I am wearing is 8 per cent coffee as it will absorb any body odours from standing in this packed room for an hour,” the green entrepreneur Gunther Pauli in Milan joked to press gathered for the announcement.
Mr Pauli is a sustainability entrepreneur from Belgium who has long pushed for reusing the 99.8pc of coffee byproducts —about six million tons — that are thrown out once we’ve had our daily jolt.
Coffee grounds are rich in fats, oils, proteins and cellulose, with a unique chemistry since the beans undergo both fermentation and semi-carbonisation processes to become roasted coffee. Researchers discovered it can be used as an additive to help control odour in shoe soles and clothing. Hugo Boss, Patagonia, Nike and Timberland are among the retailers producing the hi-tech attire, Mr Pauli said, noting that demand was outpacing supply.
“People pay a lot of money to control odour, so there is real value in merging coffee and bioplastics experts for a whole portfolio of products,” Mr. Pauli said. “We need more of your coffee!”
Students from Turin are making regular stops in Turin’s 114 city centre coffee bars to collect grounds for use in the labs. Coffee grounds are being tested for a variety of commercial applications, including growing edible mushrooms.
Tougher EU restrictions on traditional petroleum-based plastic have expanded the European bioplastics market by approximately 20 pc per year, while also fueling a parallel economy in agriculture, as farmers must grow and harvest the plants used for bio polymers, be it sugarcane, corn, or even the common thistle being processed on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia.
Eco-friendly plastics are turning up in everything from tea bags to wine corks, milk cartons to medical implants and, of course, the bags we use tfor our groceries. It was only a matter of time before coffee pods cleaned up their act, too.