Coffee Capsule Sustainability Faceoff Winner Revealed

Independent data-based study looked at single-use coffee capsules made of aluminum, compostable bioplastics, and conventional plastics…which won?

Rick Lingle, Senior Technical Editor

November 21, 2023

3 Min Read

A study of a specific packaged product using different packaging materials will lead to one winner and the others as…runners up.

An independent study conducted by Netherlands-based Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, a part of Wageningen University & Research (WUR), assessed the environmental impact and circularity of single-use coffee capsules made from compostable biobased materials, aluminum, and conventional plastics through multiple end-of-life scenarios including industrial composting, recycling, incineration, and landfill.

The study revealed that coffee capsules made with Ingeo polylactic acid (PLA) biopolymer from NatureWorks outperformed aluminum, conventional plastics, and other compostable capsules when it came to sustainability performance.

The study also accounted for the fate of the spent coffee grounds within these capsules, finding that compostable capsules keep both the coffee grounds and capsule materials in the loop via organics recycling, making them the most sustainable option. The thermoformed Ingeo-based capsules used in the study were produced by NatureWorks’ partner and food packaging producer, Flo SpA.

Coffee capsule sustainability assessment details.

This study meticulously assessed different combinations of materials and disposal methods emphasizing their global warming potential over a period of 100 years in carbon dioxide equivalents as well as their Material Circularity Indicator (MCI).

“The MCI is the most comprehensive tool for measuring the circularity of materials and offers scientifically based insights for guiding sustainable material choices.”

“The MCI integrates critical factors such as recycling rates, recycled content, recycling process yield, biobased content, reusability, and average product lifespan,” says Erwin Vink, Sustainability Director, NatureWorks. “Originally developed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and tested by leading European businesses with real product data to ensure its robustness and relevance economy-wide, the MCI is the most comprehensive tool for measuring the circularity of materials and offers scientifically based insights for guiding sustainable material choices.”

Compostable capsule boasts low impact on global warming.

Because Ingeo is made from annually renewable, plant-based resources, the bio-based compostable capsules were shown to have a low impact on global warming. Compostable capsules also had an MCI of 100%, or fully circular, when the capsules are composted, as in this process, both the capsule material and coffee grounds undergo organic recycling. The compostable capsules maintained robust sustainability metrics even in a scenario where consumers disposed of the capsules improperly into another waste stream.

“The conclusion of this study is significant because it represents the entire life cycle of the capsule and the coffee inside from carbon footprint to its circularity potential,” says Flavio Di Marcotullio, strategic marketing manager, single serve beverages at NatureWorks. “It clearly shows that compostable capsules made with Ingeo are, bottom line, the most sustainable material for single-use coffee capsules, outperforming recycling scenarios for both conventional plastic and aluminum while also making disposal simple for consumers.”

NatureWorks has partnered with Flo SpA since 2018 to develop Ingeo PLA-based compostable coffee capsules, including rigorous testing for quality and compostability, ensuring the most sustainable option while delivering a positive end-user brewing experience. Compostable coffee capsules enable discarding of the capsule and wet coffee grounds into a single-waste stream — diverting both the packaging and spent coffee grounds away from landfills or incinerators to industrial composting where they are processed into a valuable soil amendment that can improve soils through carbon sequestration and water retention.

About the Author(s)

Rick Lingle

Senior Technical Editor, Packaging Digest and PlasticsToday

Rick Lingle is Senior Technical Editor, Packaging Digest and PlasticsToday. He’s been a packaging media journalist since 1985 specializing in food, beverage and plastic markets. He has a chemistry degree from Clarke College and has worked in food industry R&D for Standard Brands/Nabisco and the R.T. French Co. Reach him at [email protected] or 630-408-7184.[email protected]

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