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Yes, we know you love your coffee machine. But there's something you need to know...

John Sylvan may not be a household name, but he has certainly affected many Aussie’s morning coffee routine.

Sylvan is best known as the founder and inventor of the American coffee pod. But he’s full of regrets about their environmental impact – despite having made millions. In fact, Sylvan has denounced those glorious little coffee pods.

“I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it,” Sylvan told The Atlantic this week, specifically citing the issue around the environmental waste they cause.

The concern over the environmental impact of pods isn’t a new one. And with three million of the pods being consumed in Australia every day, it’s one that’s probably not going away.

This is a post Mamamia published late last year about the one thing many Australians don’t know about their morning cup of coffee…

Without coffee, mornings just aren’t the same…

This is a post by John Rice, Griffith University and Nigel Martin, Australian National University about those mysterious coffee pods:

Mornings just aren’t the same. Late sleepers, once troubled only by the quiet gurgle of the boiling kettle, are now shaken from their slumber by the guttural sounds of steaming water being forced through aluminium or plastic coffee pods.

Conveniently secreted into the coffee machine’s collecting receptacle, the pangs of guilt from the latte socialists (and others) are only tweaked when the dank pods require emptying – generally well after the coffee has been consumed.

Australia is in love with coffee pods. Wooed by no less than Hollywood star George Clooney, pods have taken Australian homes and workplaces by storm.

As is the case for other beverages, Australians have shifted to drinking better quality coffee and pods are part of that mix. While pods are one of the most expensive ways to buy packaged coffee, they are also one of the most convenient.

The Swiss coffee pod innovators at Nespresso have been joined by usurpers including Germany’s Aldi and Italy’s Cafitally, proving that patents are easier to take out than protect. This having been said, the industry is in a rapid phase of growth – sales are soaring – and thus few are complaining.

The coffee pod industry is booming.

Yet the news is far from all good. Pods are emblematic of a wider problem in our society, where we often say one thing and generally do another. In this case, where many of us like to speak about being “green” or living sustainably, even while sipping from a cup of coffee produced by an industry that is about as sustainable as an ageing Soviet nuclear power plant.

If, as some predict, pod use doubles over the next five years, a veritable environmental tsunami is in store. While recyclable in theory, in practice pods rarely are, particularly the plastic variety beloved by the budget-conscious.

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Instead, they end in landfill: perhaps a poignant sign for garbage archaeologists a thousand years from now of this generation’s environmental profligacy.

Last year, independent consumer group Choice reported that Nespresso had sold an estimated 28 billion capsules worldwide – about 28 million kilograms of aluminium, much of which may be sitting in landfill, with recycling figures not made public.

New Zealand’s Ethical Coffee Company has created a vegetable-based biodegradable coffee capsule that is Nespresso-compatible and can be thrown straight into the compost. However, the shelf life of these pods is likely to be far more limited than the most commonly used aluminium or double-wrapped plastic pods.

But perhaps most prosaically, critics often argue that pod coffee just isn’t any good.

How does ‘pod’ coffee compare to something a barista makes?

A decent barista generally uses between 10 and 20 grams of ground coffee in a serve, while pods contain barely 5 grams. The decision to make the pods so small was carefully chosen to maximise profits, not taste.

As a result, the coffee produced generally fails blind taste tests – labelled watery, musty and underwhelming by Choice. Hardly the words that the marketers would like to hear.

And yet, the march of the pods continues.

The American satirist H.L. Mencken famously quipped that “no one in this world … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people”. In today’s world, you could add the word “laziness”, or more charitably “love of convenience”, to the list.

Pods, in their own humble way, tell us much about the future intersection of environmentalism and consumerism.

Surprise, surprise. All of those little plastic cups end up in landfill.

Western consumers are generally supportive of the environment – so long as they don’t have to do anything about it. Multinationals everywhere are wise to this, of course, and have created a phenomenon known to cynical greenies and academics as “greenwashing”. This entails wrapping a product in a veil of environmentally positive haze, regardless of how fundamentally egregious its environmental credentials are.

It all paints a less than rosy picture for the future, in which more businesses help create, rather than solve, environmental problems. How this all plays out remains to be seen. One thing, however, is predictable. For innovators who can blend branding and convenience while ignoring all else, the future seems assured.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

John Rice is a member of the Australian Labor Party and the National Tertiary Education Union. He drinks skinny flat whites.

Nigel Martin does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Do these environmental and social concerns make you think again about your coffee drinking habits? 

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