Ever since George Clooney took his first sip of DIY espresso on our TV screens, more than a decade ago, we have fallen in love with fancy coffee machines.
The ad campaign was so seductive that now around a third of Brits have a coffee machine in their kitchen, according to research by trade magazine The Grocer.
Excellent news for the coffee industry — but a looming disaster for the environment. Why? Because most of these machines use coffee pods, those little sealed capsules you pop into the machine to brew a serving of perfect coffee.
We spent more than £190 million on them over the past two years, which equates to around 760 million pods being used — and discarded — in Britain in just 12 months.
Brits have spent more than £190 million on coffee machines over the past two years
The problem is that most coffee pods are made from a complex combination of plastic and metal and can rarely be recycled. As a result, millions of little plastic pots are finding their way into landfill — and the natural environment — every day.
A coffee addict myself, I’d felt increasingly guilty over the mountain of plastic pods I was creating, so earlier this year, I chose to get rid of my machine and use a cafetiere instead.
But perhaps I was too hasty, because brands have finally started to wake up and smell the coffee — pouring investment into making more eco-friendly pods. Even Waitrose is set to launch own-brand compostable capsules at the end of the year.
From cornstarch to sugar cane, the new pods use clever, often biodegradable materials to solve the problem. Some environmentalists say we should cut down on waste altogether, rather than simply swapping unrecyclable pods for a slightly better option — but they are a step forward in helping stem the tide of plastic in our oceans.
So, which eco-friendly pod should you pop into your coffee machine, and how does the coffee inside actually taste?
One of the first compostable capsules, these are made from ‘plant-based plastic’
Percol Organic Ethiopia Espresso in plant-based capsules, £3.92 for 10 capsules from paperstone.co.uk
One of the first compostable capsules, these are made from ‘plant-based plastic’ derived from sugar beet and sugar cane.
They’re certified to EU standards that say the used pods can be tossed into your food recycling bin and will break down in as little as 12 weeks.
The coffee itself is organic, and made from Ethiopian Sidamo beans which grow slowly, giving them time to absorb nutrients and develop a robust flavour.
Taste test: Made to be drunk as a short shot, this created an excellent ‘crema’ on the top (the head of creamy ‘microbubbles’ you find on a good espresso). It has a light, almost floral, flavour. 4/5
Launched this year by The Eden Project, the experimental garden in Cornwall, these capsules and their lids are made from a compostable bio plastic
Eden Project Colombian Single Origin Biodegradable Capsules, £3.50 for 10 capsules from Waitrose
Launched this year by The Eden Project, the experimental garden in Cornwall, these capsules and their lids are made from a compostable bio plastic. They’re also manufactured using energy from wind, sun, hydropower and biogas — so they don’t contribute to climate change either.
Again, they meet the EU standard that means they can be put in your council garden waste collection or added to your compost heap. The cardboard box they arrive in is printed with vegetable inks, making it totally recyclable.
Taste test: A crisp, clean flavour with citrus notes – good for a midday pick-me-up. 4½/5
Volcano Coffee Works Balanced, £5.50 for 8 pods from farmdrop.com
Hand-roasted in small batches, this high-quality coffee is ethically sourced from South American growers.
The pods and lids are made from a cornstarch-based bioplastic. They can be put in your food recycling bin, and should break down within six months in an industrial composting system. The cardboard folder they come in and its inner fibre tray are also recycleable.
Taste test: A naturally sweet, roasted nut flavour that’s perfect to be drunk throughout the day. And it’s not too strong. 4/5
Created by three-time UK Barista champion Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood
Colonna Finca Las Galeras Compostable Capsules, £24 for 40 pods from colonnacoffee.com
Created by three-time UK Barista champion Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, these capsules are made from cornstarch and should degrade within six months in your food recycling bin.
The foil pouches the pods come in to preserve the flavour are possibly not so green — but the cardboard container can be recycled.
The coffee is grown on the slopes of Colombia’s most active volcano, which gives a richer flavour.
Taste test: Smooth and plummy with a hint of caramel. 3/5
Kinta Loma Medium Bio-degradable Capsules, £3.75 for 10 pods from cafekintaloma.com
This Colombian family company uses top quality Supremo Arabica beans, and a totally ‘chemical-free’ process.
Although Kinta Loma label their pods as biodegradable, the lids are made of aluminium, which has to be recycled separately with your drinks cans and so on. Kinta Loma are trialling a fully compostable pod.
Taste test: An unusual, fragrant, floral/chocolate flavour. 3/5
STRONG AND SPICY
Dualit Compostable Indian Monsoon is a Fairtrade, dark roast espresso grown on small farms in southern India
Dualit Compostable Indian Monsoon, £2.99 for 10 capsules from ocado.com
A Fairtrade, dark roast espresso grown on small farms in southern India. The coffee plants are shade-grown — planted under a canopy of other crops — to encourage biodiversity.
The pods are made of a cornstarch, sugar cane and vegetable fibre blend that can be disposed of in most local food waste collection bins. The outer cardboard box is recyclable, too.
Taste test: Strong with hints of chocolate and spice. 4½/5
This organic decaf coffee is created without the chemicals many mainstream brands use
The Foodies’ Larder Swiss Water Decaff Coffee Compostable Capsules, £20.50 for 40, from amazon.co.uk
This organic decaf coffee is created without the chemicals many mainstream brands use to remove caffeine from their beans. The pods are made from cornstarch and are 100 per cent biodegradable and compostable within six to 12 weeks in your food waste bin. Throw them on your compost heap, and they should decompose in 18-24 months.
Taste test: A mild, nutty coffee that you wouldn’t necessarily know was decaf. 3½/5
BIG CAFFEINE HIT
Novell Intenso Espresso Compostables, £3.30 for ten capsules from novellcoffee.co.uk
A new product from a major coffee brand, Spanish company Novell. Made from a combination of organic Fairtrade arabica and robusta beans, these capsules offer an intense caffeine hit. The pods and lids are both made with cornstarch, which should decompose within four to 12 weeks.
Taste test: Strong espresso with toasted, vanilla-y notes. 4/5
This one’s a robust metal pod you fill with your own coffee, top with a self-adhesive foil sea
Sealpod Refillable Capsules, £29.99 for two reusable metal pods, a coffee measure and 100 disposable lids, maverickcoffee.co.uk
This one’s a robust metal pod you fill with your own coffee, top with a self-adhesive foil seal and pop in your machine as you would any other capsule. Then you just remove it, wash and use again.
Taste test: You need to tamp as much coffee into the pod as possible to get a reasonably strong cup. Filling, emptying and cleaning the pod is a little tiresome, too. 2½/5