Packaging: Impact of the caffeine fix on the environment

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Against the back of the growth of the coffee culture and convenience of capsules, comes the pressure on brand owners to introduce more sustainable, easyto- recycle, biodegradable and compostable coffee capsules.

Single-serve coffee capsules on growth path

Single-serve capsules have a complex value chain in the market; this is because there are several coffee brewing systems like Nespresso and Keurig Green Mountain with proprietary capsule designs and the highest machine installed rates globally. However, the expiry of their design patents in 2012 brought about disruptive changes in the supply chain.

While these changes created new opportunities for both-end users and converters to tap into this growing market segment, the supply chain of capsules is rapidly losing its oligopolistic nature and the former dominance of major suppliers is challenged as the market expands. A more fragmented supply chain affects the overall profit pool and the way consumers make their choices. This is according to research firm AMI Consulting that has collaborated with Plastic Technologies Inc to publish a report on the single-serve beverage industry.

plastic and aluminium capsules in 2018

AMI estimates the volume of all compatible plastic and aluminium capsules in 2018 as equivalent to 23% of the singleserve capsules market worldwide, which is driven by Nespresso, K-Cup, and Nestlé’s Nescafé Dolce Gusto machines in households.

There are around 200 Nespresso-compatible plastic capsule designs, but only 10% are of quality, says AMI. Nespresso has changed its design elements cyclically, and compatibles suppliers are forced to catch up.

Meanwhile, anti-trust laws require Nestlé to make its design adjustments publicly available, with a lead time of six months to allow for fair competition.

Thus, compatible single-serve capsules have become popular among consumers and are often accepted as good alternatives. With the popularisation of mainstream brands, there is a need to differentiate and add value, with quality and shelf impact dictating high-barrier specifications for capsules.

Compatibles that were formerly of mono-layer PP and PBT capsules are now being re-specified with high-barrier technologies including co-extrusion, thermoforming, co-injection, barrier IML, barrier coatings, and barrier compression moulding.

Pressure for compostable/degradable capsules

AMI says that with an increasing number of capsules lying in landfills, brand owners are reviewing materials used to find more environmentally sustainable and cost-effective alternatives, as well as to explore end-of-life solutions.

Recently, the European Parliament revealed a sweeping ban on single-use plastic items such as disposable plastic plates, plastic straws and cotton swabs by 2021.

In Canada, which is a great coffee-drinking nation, legislation was introduced this year requiring all single-use capsules sold in British Columbia to be compostable. Another state, Ontario, is looking at enforcing similar laws.

Thus, sustainable coffee capsules are rapidly growing, especially since the comfort and convenience of capsules is imminent as it caters to the coffee cravings of millennials.

Nespresso says that since 1991, when it created its capsule recycling programme in Switzerland, it has collaborated with global partners to find solutions. It claims that it is able to retrieve 80% of all its capsules sold, which are made of aluminium and thus are recyclable. As part of its 2020 commitment, it is also starting to convert end-of-life capsules into new capsule material.

While the inventor of Keurig’s K-Cups has been quoted as having said that he regrets his creation because of the waste it generates, Keurig, which commands the largest share of the US market (29%), says it is working on making all its capsules recyclable by 2020, having changed the plastic it uses from PE to the more recyclable PP.

Composting as opposed to recycling

Nevertheless, recycling of coffee capsules is a hassle as it involves removing individual components like the BASF having turned around their products for coffee capsules aluminium foil top, plastic films, coffee grounds (which make a great compost material for gardens, etc), plastic capsule shell, paper filter, etc.

The above is a reason that compostable barrier capsule solutions were introduced in 2012, with materials suppliers like Germany-based BASF having turned around their products for coffee capsules.

In 2013, BASF teamed up with Swiss Coffee Company to launch the Beanarella capsule range using BASF’s certified and fully compostable Ecovio material to form the capsules. Ecovio had been on the market for a few years before that and was mainly used for mulch agriculture films and plastic bags. Thus, BASF had to overcome a few key challenges, to convert the material for use in coffee capsules.

Another packaging player RPC Bebo has also used Ecovio to develop its coffee capsule. RPC says that “within 12 weeks of industrial composting only a minor amount of capsule material is left thanks to the decomposition, which is assisted by the coffee itself.”

More recently, Italian food packaging firm Flo introduced Gea, an industrially compostable coffee capsule created in partnership with US material supplier compostable-coffee NatureWorks’s Ingeo PLA. The companies claim it is the first capsule in the world that combines compostability, oxygen barrier and an improved taste and aroma.

Flo also says that compared to competitors currently on the market, Gea addresses market requests for material ageing stability in an industrially compostable format. “Being able to count on a capsule that does not show signs of ageing in a few months, but is shelf stable for years, is a huge value for coffee roasters,” explained Flo’s Marketing Director Erika Simonazzi.

Ingeo is a renewably sourced polymer that is certified for industrial composting systems, according to global standards such as EN-13432 (EU) and ASTM D6400-04 (US). Flo adds that its new capsule technology platform is fully approved for food contact and is now in final testing by TÜV Austria and the Italian Composting and Biogas Association (CIC) for compostability certification. Previously, Flo had also been making capsules of singlelayer Mad-Coffee PP and PP/EVOH/ PP with an oxygen barrier layer.

Since Australia is big on the coffee culture, a lot of new technology is arising from the country. Mad Coffee Capsules claims its 100% compostable capsule is the first on the market to be awarded the certifications “OK Compost” and “OK Biobased”, confirming the compostability, not only of the material, but of all the components of the finished product (capsule + coffee + lids + adhesive).

The market has also been encouraged with improvements to components of capsules like the nitrogenflushed packaging sleeve to keep the coffee fresh, which is also compostable now. This is what Australian company Capsule Pack offers in its BioCap capsules, which it says “are made from a patented sugarcane-based composite”.


Queensland-based Capsule Pack, which was established in 2013 as a contract packer to service Australia’s need for locally packed coffee capsules, says even if the used BioCaps are thrown in regular waste, where they may end up on a landfill, recycling unit, or incinerator, “they will have less impact on the environment than plastic capsules”.

To compost or not to compost

Meanwhile, the idea of composting capsules may not be favourable for everyone, especially when companies indicate it should only be done in industrial composting facilities.

Early this year, a resident in the US, in Kansas City, sued Cameron’s Coffee and Kauai Coffee on the grounds that they had made “false, deceptive and misleading” claims that they are selling “100% compostable pods.” The suit went on to say that the pods are “only compostable in commercial composting facilities” and that this was not available in the city.

Thus, when coffee capsules are not certified for composting in one’s backyard and there are no industrial facilities in the vicinity, these capsules end up on landfills.

There is a growing concern that environmentally friendly materials are outpacing the processing capabilities of most landfills. For example, California, in the US, has enforced laws to regulate the labelling of degradable plastic products sold in the state, including those claimed to be “compostable” or “biodegradable,” since all of these end up on landfills.

Hence, more developments are required for capsules not to end up as an eyesore on landfills. Or, perhaps, it may drive consumers to resort to drip coffee/paper filters or simply go back to the old-fashioned way of boiling a kettle to make a coffee to cut down on the waste generated!


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