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Hamburg Is the First City to Ban Single-Use Coffee Pods

You won’t find coffee pods in its government buildings

A huge pile of used disposable Nestle Nespresso coffee capsules in various colors on a garbage heap in Switzerland. The popular capsules are collected after use in order to recycle the aluminum parts. (Erik Tham/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Thanks to the convenience of using coffee pods to make drip coffee, sales of the individual plastic packets have skyrocketed. But the uptick in purchases of the single-use devices have come at a high cost to the environment. To combat this waste, the German city of Hamburg recently banned the plastic coffee pods from government offices.

As the plastic capsules are only good for one use before they get tossed in the trash, the pods have produced a significant amount of waste each year. Adding to the problem, each pod is made from a collection of different materials from plastic to aluminum, which means that even though some are recyclable, they might not end up being put with the plastic and glass. That leaves the containers to pile up in landfills by the millions, Wyatt Marshall writes for Munchies.

“It’s six grams of coffee in three grams of packaging,” Jan Dube, spokesman for the Hamburg Department of the Environment and Energy, said in a statement. “We in Hamburg thought that these shouldn’t be bought with taxpayers’ money.”

While coffee capsules are wasteful, they are still incredibly popular. Since 2011, the market for capsule coffee makers has tripled in the United States and Western Europe, according to MarketWatch in 2013. Today, capsules account for about one in eight coffees sold in Germany, the BBC reports. Hamburg’s officials are taking a stand in hopes of leading by example and educating its citizens on how wasteful these coffee pods can be.

"The city can help ensure that environmentally harmful products are purchased less frequently and that sustainable products achieve even greater acceptance in the market. Our objective is to increase the share of environmentally friendly products significantly in order to help combat climate change," Hamburg senator Jens Kerstan tells Ivana Kottasova for CNN Money.

Pod coffee makers aren’t the only wasteful items being banned in Hamburg’s government buildings. The official language blocks "certain polluting products or product components" from being bought for government use, including: plastic utensils and plates, bottled water, beer and soda, as well as certain house paints and cleaning products.

In addition to reducing waste and sticking to stricter sustainability standards, Hamburg’s officials believe that they will be able to save quite a bit of money by dropping the Keurigs, seeing as a single pound of pod coffee can cost up to $40, Marshall writes.

Some coffee pod makers are looking to make their products more environmentally friendly. Keurig, for one, has vowed to only sell recyclable coffee pods by 2020. Finding sustainable materials that pass the company's specifications is tough, though. According to the company’s website, “the pods must keep coffee fresh before brewing, withstand the heat and pressure during brewing, and be easily punctured with a needle as part of the brewing process," all of which makes it difficult to find suitable replacement materials.

Ironically, even the inventor of the Keurig K-Cup has spoken dismissively of the device. John Sylvan, who invented the pods in 1997, told the Atlantic’s James Hamblin in 2015 that he sometimes regrets he invented the machine in the first place.

“I don't have one. They're kind of expensive to use,” Sylvan tells Hamblin. “Plus it’s not like drip coffee is tough to make.”

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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