Coffee Pods Might Not Be As Bad for the Environment As You Think

New research looked at the methods of coffee preparation that leave the smallest carbon footprint.

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By Adrian Falk

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With three-quarters of the American population drinking coffee and at least 53% consuming a cup of Joe once a day, we are starting to wake up to the effects our love affair with this caffeinated beverage has on our environment.

From deforestation to waste, the impact of increased coffee production is taking a toll on the planet.

But new research has shown that certain methods of coffee preparation can produce less carbon emissions and be better for the environment.

The researchers also discovered that it's the way the coffee is manufactured — not the packaging itself — that causes the most harmful environmental impact.

Let's grind a little deeper.

Related: Science Says When to Stop Drinking Coffee to Ensure a Good Night's Sleep. And It Is Earlier Than You Think.

Best ways to prep

Researchers at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC) looked at the carbon footprint of several techniques used to prepare coffee at home, including:

  • Pods
  • Instant coffee (soluble)
  • Brewed (French press)
  • Traditional filter

Their analysis showed that traditional filtered coffee is the worst for the environment. The process requires more coffee than the other three brewing methods and uses more water and electricity to keep the water warm during the making process. This leads to filtered coffee using 1 ½ times more energy than pods alone.

Instant coffee is actually the cleanest form of coffee preparation due to the small amount of coffee and electricity required. However, coffee-making isn't a scientific process. Studies have shown that many of us use 20% more coffee than what's required, boil too much water, and therefore use too much electricity.

Enter the pods.

According to the study, coffee pods, long maligned for clogging up landfills, may actually take home the prize for being the most environmentally friendly. Why?

The pod process is designed to use the exact amount of water, coffee, and electricity to make the perfect cup. Its foolproof system minimizes waste, saving between 11-13 grams of coffee compared to filtered coffee.

Using recyclable pods, switching to a greener source of electricity, and taking your pods to collection points for recycling the aluminum case and coffee waste could be a better way to further reduce your carbon footprint when you have your next cup of coffee.

Many pod makers encourage recycling. Nespresso even offers in-store collection points for you to recycle your coffee capsules. The company also states that they "re-use the coffee grounds to create nutrient-rich compost or green energy."

It's not the method. It's the packaging.

No matter how you brew your coffee, the real waste occurs before you purchase it. Researchers in Quebec found that the harvesting of coffee makes up most of the carbon emissions — not the packaging.

"Regardless of the type of coffee preparation, coffee production is the most GHG-emitting phase," researcher Rodrigues Viana told the Washington Post. "It contributed to around 40 percent to 80 percent of the total emissions."

Researchers point to the "mechanization, irrigation, and use of nitrous oxide-emitting fertilizers — the production of which requires large quantities of natural gas" as the greatest culprit contributing to coffee's carbon footprint.

How to drink coffee responsibly

So how do you enjoy a cup of Joe without worrying about how it's impacting the planet? Researchers in Quebec recommend drinking less.

"Coffee capsules avoid the overuse of coffee and water," they write. "However, the convenience of capsule machines can lead consumers to double their coffee consumption, thus making this environmental advantage redundant."

In the end, it's all about moderation.

Adrian Falk

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Founder & CEO of Believe Advertising & PR

Founder of international advertising and PR agency Believe Advertising, Adrian Falk generates publicity for entrepreneurs, IT, fashion, luxury travel and beauty corporations across the globe, increasing their leads and sales.

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