Sustainable coffee — recycling coffee pods

14 May 2021

Coffee

A new era of recyclable coffee pods: learn about our innovative Podcycler with Sarah Leveridge, our Sustainability Pioneer.

Coffee pods are quick and convenient. Perfectly portioned to lock in freshness, with just the push of a button you can enjoy the bright, vibrant notes of your favourite coffee. But doesn’t individual packaging have a negative impact on the environment? Is there a way to balance great taste and ease of use without compromising sustainability?

Great coffee shouldn’t be complicated, and we are on a mission to provide delicious, ethical drinks that tread lightly on the plant.

Are coffee pods recyclable?

Single-use coffee pods might be a convenient shortcut to your morning brew, but, sadly, many of them end up lingering in a landfill. Some packaging claims to be eco-friendly, compostable, or recyclable. However, as Hotel Chocolat’s Sustainability Pioneer, Sarah Leveridge has found, often “there’s no process for validating these claims in the UK.”  

As for plastic or non-compostable options, most kerbside recycling collections will not accept single-use coffee pods. One of the reasons for this is that wet coffee grounds can contaminate other recyclable materials. So what are we meant to do with used pods?

Introducing the Podcycler: the sustainable solution to coffee pod by-waste

Aluminium is pretty useful material. Not only does it keep our coffee tasting super-fresh, but it’s infinitely recyclable. This means it can be recycled again and again without losing quality. We chose to use aluminium for our coffee pods to help reduce the amount of plastic in circulation. We also decided to eschew fancy branding and use bare aluminium pods with a recyclable paper seal so that every part of the pod can be fully recycled. 

However, the problem of pesky, water-sodden coffee grounds still stands. An estimated 15 billion aluminium pods go to landfill each year, despite it being a recyclable metal. We also decided to use bare aluminium pods with a recyclable paper seal so that every part of the pod can be fully recycled.

Enter the Podcycler: our uniquely sustainable solution to coffee pod by-waste. It eco-presses the pods, removing coffee grounds from the capsules and enabling effortless household recycling. It separates the used coffee into a dedicated chamber, leaving the pod itself ready to rinse and recycle. You can then add your coffee grounds to your compost or food waste bin, or scatter them over your garden as fertiliser!

What’s more, the Podcycler is compatible with all brands of aluminium pods, including Nespresso.

How to recycle coffee pods

As Sarah Leveridge and CEO Angus Thirlwell discovered, aluminium coffee pods tend to fall through the gaps on conveyor belts during the recycling process.

One of the joys of using the Podcycler is that you can stack and crush used pods before putting them in the recycling so they can travel safely through the kerbside system. Find out more about Angus and Sarah’s Podcycler journey in our exclusive interview below.

Exclusive interview with Sarah Leveridge: The Sustainability Pioneer

“I grew up with a make-do-and-mend approach. We didn’t just buy new stuff; we looked at how old stuff could be repaired or repurposed. My husband is the same — our washing machine is 18 years old and has been mended and re-mended four times! I like to treat things with respect and keep them going as long as I can.

If our waste is treated properly, it can become a resource in someone else’s hands.”

Tell us what you’ve discovered about recycling and packaging

“Everything can be recycled. It just needs to get into the right hands to be recycled properly. Over the years, I’ve become fascinated by the circular economy and how we can drive it forward.

For example, aluminium is infinitely recyclable, and about 80% of aluminium packaging that has gone out on the market is still in use today.

That’s one of the main reasons we switched our Extra-Thick Easter Eggs from the cardboard hatbox style into an iconic tin in 2020. It’s a beautiful object, so you can reuse it at home or recycle it. It’s a win-win.

Sadly, some material suppliers are mis-selling their ‘eco-friendly’ packaging. For example, I’m doing a little experiment with some bioplastic coffee pods at the moment. The company claims that they’ll compost in a little over six weeks in my home compost. Well, mine have been in for eight weeks, and they still look exactly like coffee pods.

We need to pick away at the promises and not take what salesmen say at face value. This is why our CEO Angus invested in a sustainable packaging team. Angus and I have done a massive amount of work over the past 18 months, so we can be more confident we’re choosing the right materials.”

What about compostable packaging?

“We decided against compostable packaging after spending a day at a rubbish tip.

Angus and I visited an industrial composter – not a glamorous experience on a hot day – and asked a lot of questions about compostable packaging. Much of it is bioplastic, made with renewables like starch. It’s still a polymer, so you can’t compost it at home. Many people think that if it goes into landfill it will still decompose, but it won’t! It has to be broken down by industrial composters at around 80℃, in very specific conditions.

There just isn’t the infrastructure in the UK for this. Only 5% of households have access to industrial composters, and even then, the composters strip out packaging because they just can’t tell if it’s compostable or not.

We had made ‘compostable’ the first statement on our Planet Pledge. But as soon as Angus knew it wasn’t going to help, he wasn’t afraid to say, ‘Right, we’re going to take that off’.

Is the Podcycler a good solution?

“It’s hard to believe we’ve been waiting over 20 years for a good solution to coffee pod recycling, but the Podcycler is a real breakthrough.

We collaborated with Dualit and heavily invested in the Podcycler. It’s a clever little gadget that tackles the problem of wet coffee grinds contaminating other recyclables and enables you to stack and squash several empty pods together so they won’t fall through holes in recycling plant conveyors.

You can reuse coffee grounds in a myriad of ways. They’re packed with minerals like nitrogen and magnesium, making them turbo-charged fertilisers for plants. Their coarse texture also means they make a great body exfoliator. We use them in our Rabot Coffee Body Scrub.”

How else are you helping people to recycle?

“Hotel Chocolat was the first luxury brand to join the On-Pack Recycling Labelling scheme.

The OPRL is an award-winning non-profit organisation aiming to deliver a simple, consistent and UK-wide recycling message on packaging to help people recycle correctly.

They have now authorised us to put our coffee pod recycling advice next to their sign on our packaging. And we’ve done a huge amount of work with the OPRL to validate this, so we’ve really driven change.

What I’m lobbying for is that every piece of packaging should clearly tell the consumer how they should recycle it.”

What is a circular economy for plastic?

We’re part of a pioneering project – the UK’s first local circular economy for plastic.

The problem we have in the UK is that we don’t have a good infrastructure for our waste, so instead of being repurposed, it just goes into landfill. But it’s possible to change that.

For example, our Quail Eggs trays now use locally sourced, recycled plastic, made just a quarter of a mile from our Huntingdon factory by our supplier Charpak. It’s called a ‘localised circular economy’ because we source the plastic from Cambridgeshire kerbside recycling bins.”

How else is Hotel Chocolat working to reduce packaging waste?

“Our Planet Pledge is to make all of our packaging recyclable or reusable by 2022.

We’re 93% of the way towards this goal, but we’re always re-evaluating and upgrading what we do as we find out more. I think I’ve got an amazing job in that we’re not greenwashing.

We’re transparent. We’re reporting what we’re doing – warts and all. And we’re always, always looking at how we can improve. We won’t switch to a material that doesn’t really work just because it might stop some people from having a go at us about our use of plastic. We believe in making sure we consider everything.

We believe in really doing the right thing, not just saying it.”

Coffee with a conscience

Just like chocolate, we believe it’s possible to source delicious, sustainable coffee that’s easy to prepare and just as easy to dispose of in an eco-friendly way. Our coffee pod range aims to bring together flavour and fairness for the conscious coffee connoisseur.