As the English proverb goes: “necessity is the mother of invention”. The most successful innovations are those that cater to a necessity, and “necessity” extends from solving a problem we meet on a daily basis, to simply making our lives easier.
K-cup and Nespresso machines are ingenious. From a business standpoint you’re pinballing two birds with one stone; the coffee is good, the machine stylish and compact, the process quick and easy, and there is no clean-up involved. Additionally, to the average customer, single-use coffee servings are (next to instant coffee, but that is a long, separate discussion) the clear winner from a sustainability standpoint, when compared to drip and espresso methods. Water is only heated for the single serving, there is no left-over coffee in a pot left a hotplate, and the amount of coffee grounds used is relatively low (ca. 8g-11g vs. 5g per cup).
All you really have to do is occasionally empty the capsules into the trash. Right? Right. That’s where over 50 billion capsules went last year, destination: landfill.
Is coffee inherently vital to our survival? No. But do we love coffee? Yes. Will we continue drinking coffee? Of course. It’s part of our culture, and it’s a lifestyle. So, what is the truly genius innovation? An innovation that thinks bigger than just the time saved, or the money saved – an innovation that doesn’t compromise between product quality and experience, and sustainability?
Halo has stepped in to address what K-cup (the originator) and Nestlé overlooked – what happens after we have made our coffee?
Halo created “the world’s first Nespresso compatible, 100% compostable paper capsule made from sugar cane and paper pulp.” They offer a solid selection of single-origins and blends, and we decided to order a few of the products ourselves:
The attention to detail is nice. We are provided the friendly reminder to recycle everything – they suggest one of the description papers can be used as a bookmark. Be creative!
There is a plastic like film (don't worry, its biodegradable) that covers each sleeve to keep them air-tight, and once opened it's recommended to use the capsules within 3-4 weeks.
Perfectly compatible with Nespresso machines. They do however expand slightly when used, meaning you have to tap them lightly after use so they drop down into the container.
Even when opening the sleeves you are met with a wonderful aroma. The taste is very fine, yet remains complex. We purchased the Daterra Moonlight, Pacamara, Three Mountain (I handed the decaf off to my mother - as she loves decaf coffee).
We decided to dig a little deeper, and stumbled into a bit of a capsule conundrum.
As mentioned, capsules are a rather smart and efficient way of making coffee, so we decided to make a little breakdown on coffee grounds used in standard coffee brewing, and in nespresso capsules.
The “Golden Ratio” for coffee rests within the boundaries of a 1:15 (stronger) - 1:18 coffee (weaker) grounds in grams-to-water ratio. How big is a cup? The standard answer we are getting is 177ml, or 6 ounces. That equates to 10.6 grams of fresh coffee grounds per cup (at a suggested ratio of 1:16.7)
A standard Arabica nespresso capsule contains 5g of grounds, and a lungo pours 110ml, giving a ratio of 1:22 - significantly less grounds used per ml. One could however argue that people are then more likely to drink more coffee (e.g. double up when making a coffee), as 110ml is far short of a regular serving, and the coffee weaker. It can also be suggested that people are more likely to stick to a single serving, even if that serving is smaller. This is of course another individual decision among the many we make on a daily basis.
The capsules come in three main types: plastic, metal, and “eco-alternatives”. Here is a breakdown of our research:
The bulk of capsules are made of plastic, from companies such as Illy, Nescafé Dolce Gusto, L’or Tassimo, Lavazza and Keurig. Plastic is the least energy intensive, but most polluting.
If all capsules were made with recyclable aluminium, and all capsules were then recycled, it is a far less polluting than in the production of plastic capsules. At this moment, however, only approx 25% of aluminium capsules are recycled.
In terms of compostable capsules, there are a few considerations. Producing them pollutes more than alternatives, and if they are shipped off to an incinerator, that pollution was pointless. In landfill, stability is the key, and a compostable capsule simply degrades and produces methane. Doubly defeats the point. Also, some backyard compost simply isn’t good enough to actually degrade it. Halo claims it composts within 4 weeks and we are running a little experiment of our own to see if that is true.
The final conclusion, however, is that compostable capsules taken into compost – or ideally a bio-methanisation facility – outweigh all other options.