However, disposing the single-use coffee pods accompanying each use creates insurmountable waste in landfills. With the introduction of biobased products being certified as industrially compostable, there is scope for an effective waste stream for nearly all biobased products that avoids adding to landfills.
The case presented in this paper demonstrates the success of composting compostable coffee pods within a local industrial-scale composting facility.
Utilizing the existing local composting facility at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville, a life cycle assessment was performed to calculate the overall embodied energy and related environmental impact(s) to determine the feasibility of using compostable coffee pods over conventional plastic ones.
Testing showed complete degradation within 46 days, proving composting to be a feasible waste stream option and a sustainable marketing edge while treading the path toward a circular economy.
Cost savings of 21% were realized in terms of waste disposal, in addition to creating a value-added product at the end of the coffee pods life cycle, with nutrient-rich compost being recirculated to campus gardens and farms.
Advances in modern technology have allowed for convenient waste disposal options incorporating pathways such as landfilling, incineration, recycling, and composting for applicable materials.
However, a rapid rise in population in conjunction with exorbitant resource extraction has caused increasing waste volumes.
Currently, landfills and oceans overflow with a myriad of materials, some of which can degrade on human timescales, whereas others may not decompose for hundreds or thousands of years.
Furthermore, today’s fast-paced lifestyles do not allow us to fathom the amount of energy, resources, and labor that goes into creating consumer products.
With single-cup coffee brewers now placed in ~40% of US workplaces, plastic coffee pods are compounding the issue of recycling complex plastics.
Some studies estimate that pods landfilled in 2014 could circle the earth more than 12 times.
For reasons relating to convenience, time, and sanitation, many people choose to use disposable coffee pods. While most pods are made from synthetic, noncompostable plastics, companies are now beginning to produce compostable, bioderived plastics.
These compostable pods can be sent to industrial composting facilities with the coffee grounds intact, providing convenience for consumers compared to conventional pods while diverting waste from landfills.
Coffee pods within our study will be referred to as plastic (i.e., nonbiodegradable) and compostable pods. Each type of pod is described under section Coffee Pods.