Sustainability claims “greenwashing” coffee lovers

We all love our morning coffee. But we want to environmentally friendly too. Buying biodegradable or compostable coffee pods should allow us to have the best of both worlds. But are these new types of coffee pods as ‘green’ as they claim to be?

As the coffee pod market is set to continue to grow over the next five years, consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious. Companies such as Nespresso are facing criticism over the environmental impacts of their coffee pods.

Infographic: Jade Bradford.

The criticism has resulted in coffee pod companies being put under pressure from consumers to become more environmentally friendly. There is currently a lot of misinformation and confusion in the marketplace relating to sustainability claims, often known as “greenwashing” and used specifically by companies attempting to maintain the status quo.

Greenwashing is when a company pours its resources into marketing itself as environmentally friendly rather than focusing on minimising their environmental impact.

Australians are quite sophisticated when it comes to coffee. It’s hard to believe but there was once a time when we were more into tea than coffee. But in the 1960’s and 1970’s multiculturalism bought a European coffee trend to our shores that is now heavily embedded in our culture.

For today’s younger generations, particularly Generation Y and Z, quality barista made coffee is all they have ever known.

Our love of barista made coffee has led to coffee pods exploding in popularity. Coffee pods are loved because they are easy and convenient to use either at home or at work.

Social researcher Mark McCrindle says his report, Australian Attitudes Towards Coffee, shows there is definitely pressure on coffee makers to become more sustainable. He says this is because the emerging generation of consumers is pushing its purchasing power towards brands that exemplify an environmental conscience.

Mr McCrindle says the current generation are tuning into places that will recycle coffee pods or using alternatives to coffee pods that don’t produce the same amount of plastic waste.

“Every new innovation in the beverage market needs to be matched with innovative recycling for this sustainable generation,” he says.

Biodegradable and compostable coffee pods are popping up in advertisements online, claiming to be the sustainable solution to regular coffee pods.

Australian company Eco Caffe’s website claims its coffee pods are “biodegradable” and “compostable” and that the plastic their pods are made out of complies with European Bioplastic standards. The company also claims its pods can break down in less than six months in industrial compost.

Write Solutions Director Rob Dube says some sustainable coffee pod companies are misusing the words “biodegradable” and “compostable”.

“You don’t have to say biodegradable if its compostable. They are two separate things,” he says.

Mr Dube says the company regularly carries out packaging audits to ensure commercial sites are using the right packaging.

WRITE Solutions consultant Daragh Maher talks about compostable packaging.
Video: Jade Bradford.

“They should never mix biodegradable and compostable. If it’s compostable, it’s compostable. It’s not biodegradable. It will break down into compost and disappear,” he says.

Although he admits he is not an expert in packaging, he believes unless pod companies follow the Industrial Composting Australian Standard, “compostable” pods are not going to break down in the timeframe required by commercial composting facilities.

Currently several coffee pod brands on the market claim to be compostable but Mr Dube doubts any would break down in the commercial composting timeframe of four to eight weeks.

CSIRO researcher Peter Cass says there can be differences between bioplastic standards and the timeframe commercial composting facilities would like compostable coffee pods to break down in.  

“Composting facilities need coffee pods to degrade down at a similar rate to what their compost breaks down at, which can be a lot faster than six months that’s for sure,” Dr Cass says.

Eco Caffe coffee pods. Photo: Jade Bradford.

Eco Caffe Director Peter Laube admits there are a limited amount of commercial composting sites around Australia that can process the company’s “biodegradable” and “compostable” coffee pods.

“It is true that in many areas it is not available and accessible, but there is industrial composting capability in the greater Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane areas,” he explains.

Urban Brew Coffee Pod packaging. Photo: Jade Bradford.

Coffee pod company Urban Brew is another Australian company claiming its pods are made using biodegradable plastic from Italy and that its pods will degrade in around two years. The company website compares this to other pods which can take up to 500 years.

While Urban Brew declined an interview, the company provided the following statement:

“We are investing a lot of research and development into producing a compostable pod and this is the vision of the future Toby [Toby Strong, Urban Brew Founder] has for Urban Brew. We hope to have this fully developed in the near future but we are still in the testing phase, so stay tuned!”

While Eco Caffe provides buyers with the option of sending their pods back to them for recycling, Mr Dube estimates under five per cent of all coffee pods are recycled properly.

“Everybody has them now and most of them end up in landfill because again you have to take it somewhere special [and] people are lazy. The only way for anything to be recycled, it has to be kept separate,” he says.

Mr Dube says when he tried to process one particular brand of “compostable” pods at his facility they did not break down. He even added an extra two weeks to the processing timeframe.

“They definitely didn’t compost and this was an eight-week process and that’s in a commercial facility. So even in eight weeks, they weren’t broken down,” he says.

“There is a lot of [coffee pod] brands out there but none of them compost in the commercial timeframe that we’ve come across.”

Mr Dube at WRITE Solutions composting site. Photo: WRITE Solutions.

The Australasian Bioplastics Association manages the certification of compostable packaging materials here in Australia and New Zealand.

Sustainable packaging producer and supplier BioPak is a member of the association and is also a packaging partner of WRITE Solutions. The BioPak range consists of items such as cups, cutlery and plates which are used by commercial businesses to serve food.

BioPak founder Richard Fine says he worked closely with the commercial composting industry when developing BioPak products.

“The testing process in order to obtain compost certification is very rigorous and costly. At $30,000 per material, the process takes from six to 12 months. Certification provides composters with the trust and guarantee that the products will not contaminate their process or end product,” he explains.

“We have gone to the expense and the effort of having the bulk of our products certified to Australian standards.”

Mr Fine says it was important pod companies ensured any claims regarding sustainability are able to be backed up by independent scientific evidence.

Mr McCrindle’s research revealed 42 per cent of millennials would engage with a company if its products were perceived to have a positive impact on the environment.

Infographic: Jade Bradford.

Because of this, many pod companies are promoting degradable plastics which is leading to consumer confusion. Degradable plastics are conventional plastics with an additive that causes them to fragment, however, Mr Fine says there is no independent scientific evidence that proves that these materials completely biodegrade.

Bioplastics instead break down into microplastic particles and contribute to the growing amount of plastic pollution on our ecosystems. Degradable plastics such as plastic bags are being banned in a growing number of places, not only in Australia, but internationally.

Mr Fine says degradable plastics aren’t a solution, adding that in the US they have banned “biodegradable” terminology in marketing because companies need to be more specific about the location and timeframe the product will take to biodegrade.

Mr Maher explains the industrial composting process. Video: Jade Bradford.

“We can say that our [BioPak] products are biodegradable in either home or an industrial compost environment and then you define the timeframe. In an industrial compost environment, its three months, in a home compost environment it’s 12 months.”

Mr Dube says BioPak is the leading compostable packaging producer on the market and most of the packaging composted at his facility is BioPak packaging.

He says people often think buying biodegradable products is the right thing to do but consumers need to consider how the products will be disposed of.

There are no standards to “biodegradable” marketing claims. The term can be freely used by companies. Mr Dube says it’s a word being used too much to make people think they are doing the right thing by the environment when that’s not necessarily the case.

So how can consumers do the right thing?

Mr Fine explains it is about transparency: ‘’It’s about always asking questions. It’s so easy to go online and do a bit of research to really understand impacts,” he says.

“It is no longer sufficient for consumers to take things at face value. We need to educate ourselves about the products we are purchasing.”

Office workers enjoy their morning coffee fix in Perth CBD. Photo: Jade Bradford.

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