Drowsy German bureaucrats in Hamburg soon will have one fewer option for a mid-afternoon caffeine jolt, after the city banned single-serve coffee machines such as Nespresso from government buildings. The new regulations have a worthy purpose. They hope to defend the environment, under the assumption that the use and disposal of thousands of tiny coffee capsules or pods leads to “unnecessary resource consumption and waste generation.”
A backlash against coffee pods has been, ahem, brewing for awhile. According to a statistic cited by everyone from the Atlantic magazine to National Public Radio, Green Mountain spit out 8.5 billion of its K-cup coffee pods in 2013 — enough to circle the Earth 10.5 times. Campaigns, petitions and high-minded op-eds have attacked such profligacy, turning the humble coffee pod into an environmental bogeyman on par with bottled water.
But lost amid this fervor is any perspective about how to measure the environmental impact of the stuff we consume. There’s a real question whether high-profile product bans — of water bottles, plastic bags or coffee capsules — risk causing more damage than they prevent.
First of all, we should understand the true scale of the problem. According to the Hamburg Department of the Environment and Energy, the average coffee pod weighs 3 grams (Nespresso’s popular 1.2-gram pods and others weigh less). Using that figure, all those Green Mountain K-Cups would cumulatively weigh 25,500 metric tons. That adds up to around 0.05 percent of the more than 49 million tons of municipal solid waste generated in Germany in 2012, and just 0.01 percent of the 251 million tons of solid waste generated in the United States. (For comparison’s sake, Americans tossed out 860,000 tons of books that year.) Even adding the 27 billion pods that Nespresso claims to have sold worldwide between 1986 and 2012, the associated waste still wouldn’t amount to 1 percent of the total waste generated in the United States or Germany in 2012.
Of course, just because coffee pods are a miniscule part of the waste stream doesn’t mean that they don’t have an environmental impact. But the Hamburg ban seems to assume that other forms of making coffee are less damaging. At best, that’s a questionable assumption.
To judge coffee’s environmental costs properly, one needs to consider the entire life cycle from cultivation of the beans, to brewing — which requires energy and water — to disposal. Over the last decade there have been several attempts to do just that. Though they differ in important respects, on one point there’s near-universal agreement: The brewing process and its associated carbon emissions have the biggest impact on the environment.
Predictably, those emissions vary quite a bit depending on the coffeemaker and how it’s used. For example, pod-based machines that power down when not in use are relatively energy- efficient, especially compared to drip coffeemakers that often remain on for hours. If Hamburg officials replace the former with the latter, they could be undercutting their own well-meaning efforts.
Also, because single-serve machines generally use only as much coffee and water as is precisely necessary to brew a cup, they waste less of both than the competition. Indeed, they’re so efficient that farmers and roasters are blaming coffee capsules for a dropoff in coffee demand, according to Bloomberg. Or, in the words of one analyst: “The coffee market has lost its best consumer: the kitchen sink.” (According to two studies, the most environmentally friendly option of all is soluble instant coffee, anathema to most coffee snobs.)
This doesn’t mean Hamburg’s ban is entirely misguided. Waste and disposal are critical environmental issues, especially in countries such as Germany with high landfill costs. But they’re not the only priorities, and they shouldn’t be considered in a vacuum.