Talking Trash: Waste Blog

For a full list of past editorials/articles/opinions authored by the Waste Wiki, please refer to: https://www.linkedin.com/in/calvin-lakhan-ph-d-56329224/detail/recent-activity/posts/
 

Do Compostable Pods Really Break Down?

 

In a recent Facebook post, York Region stated that compostable coffee pods do not fully break down in municipal composting systems. This is perhaps one of the most common misconceptions surrounding the compostable coffee pod – not only does it break down in a commercial composter, a compostable coffee pod IMPROVES the quality of compost!

What is a compostable coffee pod?

A compostable coffee pod is comprised almost entirely of organic material – it is made up of a paper lid, modified cornstarch filter, a plant based compostable ring, and of course, coffee. More than 85% of compostable coffee pods are made up of coffee grounds.

How is a compostable pod different than a plastic pod?

Plastic pods are most commonly made from molded plastic cups, namely polystyrene, or polypropylene. These materials cannot be readily recycled, and as a result, most used plastic pods end up in landfill….where they will persist in the environment for thousands of years!

By comparison, certified compostable pods can be managed at composting facilities across North America. Since they are  comprised entirely of organic materials, they readily break down and contains zero of the potentially  harmful  ethylene based polymers that are commonly found in plastic pods (such as bisphenol F and bisphenol S, which are known endocrine disruptors). In a 2011 study published by Environmental Health Perspectives, almost all commercially available plastic pods – independent of resin – tested positively for estrogenic activity (even in those marketed as BPA free)

While a few of the early generations of compostable products had difficulty being processed at composting facilities, improvements in both the product design and technology to manage compostable materials has made composting coffee pods easier than ever before. To date, certified compostable coffee pods have been tested extensively in range of different composting facilities representing multiple commercial composting processes and environmental conditions.

Where do I put my compostable pod?  Compostable pods should be put in your Green Bin (assuming that your municipality offers household collection of kitchen and organic waste), or be taken to a depot/transfer station that offers organics drop off. Compostable pods are designed to be managed in commercial composting facilities, and households are encouraged to check with local authorities to find out where they are accepted. It is important to remember that a compostable pod IS NOT recyclable, and should never be put in your recycling bin. It is however, readily compostable, which offers numerous environmental and economic benefits.

Consumers should check for certified compostable pods that are BPI certified to ASTM standards – the benefits of using certified pods is that a) they have been rigorously tested and shown to break down at commercial composting sites and b) consumers simply have to put the used pod in the Green Bin. Compostable pods do not require users to separate out the lid or empty used coffee grinds.

What happens if my city does not have a Green Bin Program?

Compostable coffee pods can be disposed of in your garbage bin. Unlike coffee pods made from plastics, compostable coffee pods will break down in a landfill over time, and poses no risk of soil, water or ground water contamination.

Can I put my coffee pod in my backyard compost?

While a compostable pod will eventually break down in your backyard compost, ideally, it should go to a composting facility which actively manages the conditions that allow organic material to break down more readily. A compostable pod in your at home compost will probably take a long time for the micro-organisms to break it down into nutrient rich matter.

Which type of coffee pod is most environmentally friendly?

In a 2018 life cycle analysis comparing the environmental impacts of plastic, aluminum and compostable pods, compostable pods were observed to have the lowest overall environmental impact[1]. Compostable pods were also shown to emit 35% less carbon when compared to a conventional “drip” coffee maker. Both aluminum and plastic pods are extremely energy intensive to manufacture, when compared to PLA based materials used in the compostable pods. At end of life, compostable pods actually resulted in a net emissions savings when processed at commercial composting facilities.

What does that mean for the environment? Considering that Canadians drink more than 30 million cups of coffee every day, and almost 11 billion cups of coffee in a year, using compostable coffee pods can result in significant environmental benefits – as shown in the figure below

Compostable Coffee Pods would result in 33,504 T/CO2e fewer tonnes of carbon when compared to aluminum pods, and -40,645/TCO2e and 75,698 T/CO2e when compared to conventional drip brewers and polypropylene K-Cups respectively.

[1] Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Single Serve Coffee Packaging in Ontario. Jingxi Li (https://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/bitstream/handle/10012/12860/Li_Jingxi.pdf?sequence=5&isAllowed=y)