Coffee capsules have been taking hard hits in recent times, from a "Kill the K-Cup" video that went viral on Youtube last year to remarks by John Sylvan, one of the founders of Keurig's K-Cup, expressing remorse at ever having invented the now ubiquitous coffee pod.
Yet the latest news on the coffee front is perhaps the most drastic: In January, the German city of Hamburg announced a ban on the purchase and use of coffee pods in all government-run buildings and institutions across the city.
"Capsule-coffee is expensive and the pods don't have a good ecological balance sheet," said Jan Dube, media spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment and Energy. "They have lots of packaging compared to the small amount of coffee and we just decided we don't want to buy those products anymore with public money."
According to Dube, total consumption in 2014 in Germany was roughly three billion coffee capsules, which is estimated to equate to about 64 million pods consumed by Hamburg's 1.75 million inhabitants. The number is concerning, said Dube, because the capsules' composition of plastic and aluminum is so hard to recycle. There is also a lot of packaging for just a little bit of coffee. Dube estimates that there are roughly three grams of packaging for every six grams of coffee.
Diane Duperret, a spokeswoman for Nespresso, said Hamburg's environmental guidelines "highlighted the need to move towards a more sustainable society."
"Nespresso agrees with this principle," she added.
And while it may be coffee pods getting most of the scrutiny as of late, Hamburg's ban is far from limited to these. The list of banned items includes many other sources of environmental pollution, including plastic water bottles, disposable cutlery, paint containing biocides, and chlorinated cleaning products. Hamburg also plans to increase the number of electric vehicles in the city's fleet.
The abundance of attention given to coffee — instead of plastic forks, for example — may have something to do with George Clooney and Matt Damon, two personalities well known in Europe for their appearances in Nespresso ads. "The coffee is maybe less abstract than other products," said Dube. "It's a product everyone knows, with celebrities doing ad campaigns for the capsules."
Though other cities in Germany have taken progressive measures when it comes to the environment, Hamburg is the first to go this far. The new environmental guidelines, passed in January and published in the form of a 150-page text, are the result of years of work.
"We prepared these guidelines and the details for several years within the administration," said Dube. "The main aim was to use this purchasing power of the city administration — of more than 250 million euros per year — to give better chances to ecologically friendly products and not to environmentally harmful products."
As Senator for the Environment Jens Kerstan explained in a press release, "From now on, mandatory environmental criteria such as raw material consumption, durability, and transport distances will play an even more important role in purchasing decisions. It sends out an important signal to business and private individuals, encouraging them likewise to take greater account of the consequences of their purchasing decisions and to pay attention to each product's history."
Duperret said Nespresso is pursuing ways to increase the amount of coffee capsules that end up in recycling centers rather than a landfill.
"We continue to look at new ways to further reduce the impact of our products," she said. "Upping recycling rates is a clear priority. We have dedicated recycling systems in place in 31 countries and in some our used capsules can be recycled through national waste recovery systems."
As for Keurig, the company's vice president of corporate communications, Suzanne DuLong, notes that Keurig brewers and K-cup pods are not currently sold in Germany. She also stressed in an email that the company is working hard to become more eco-friendly.
According to DuLong, "Keurig offers several recyclable pod formats today; a reusable My K-Cup cartridge which enables consumers to brew any coffee they choose in their Keurig brewer; and, pod take-back programs for our office customers. We're not stopping there however. The recyclability of our K-Cup pods is an issue we take very seriously and while it's a complex challenge involving pod material selection and collaboration with recycling and plastic industry experts, we have a stated goal to have 100% of our K-Cup pods be recyclable by 2020, with an increasing number of pods converted to a recyclable format each year between now and then."
Though the new guidelines in Hamburg apply only to city government buildings and public institutions, the city is hoping the emphasis on ecology will prove contagious — both within city limits and beyond.
So far, reactions to the new guidelines have gotten an overwhelmingly positive response, with some cities expressing interest and asking questions about how they can implement similar regulations, said Dube. "We don't want to overestimate the role of Hamburg, but if others follow our example and introduce similar guidelines, we would be happy about it."
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Editors note: This article incorrectly identified Nespresso's spokeswoman, who is Diane Duperret, not Leona Malorny.