21st July 2021
The coffee industry is evolving in an effort to make it easier for consumers to recycle single-serve coffee pods. If you're looking for a way to reduce the waste resulting from your daily coffee routine, it could be worth swapping over to recyclable or compostable pods.
Regular coffee pods are usually made from plastic or aluminium, or a mix of both. Unfortunately, these materials can take up to 500 years to decompose naturally in a landfill. To combat the problem, big-name brands including Nespresso, Dolce Gusto and Illy have backed schemes that attempt to make recycling less fiddly.
Our extensive guide highlights the various recyclable and compostable coffee pods available to buy (and how to dispose of them). We've also gone hands-on with a selection of popular compostable coffee pods to uncover the tastiest of the bunch, as voted for by an expert panel of tasters.
Although some coffee pods are technically recyclable, you'll need to dismantle, empty and clean them before you can chuck them into your household recycling bin. The planet will thank you for your efforts, but the process can be awkward and time-consuming.
We've seen various coffee pod brands setting up recycling schemes over the past couple of years. It's a step in the right direction for sustainability, but these schemes aren't always super-convenient. For example, some rely on you leaving used your coffee pods at specific drop-off locations, but these spots can be far and few between.
If you live far from a pod drop-off point or can't be bothered to use your pod brand's recycling scheme, an interesting new alternative is the , a gadget that enables you to empty your used capsules of coffee grounds so you can rinse and recycle the aluminium in your regular recycling bin.
To reduce the environmental impact of their coffee ranges, big-name brands have introduced pods made of materials they claim are recyclable or biodegradable, though we've not tested the viability of these in practice.
Here’s a closer look at how different coffee pod brands compare:
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Varies between each brand
The owners of the UK’s three biggest coffee pod brands have joined forces to establish a nationwide recycling scheme for single-serve pods.
The coffee pod recycling scheme, known as , launched in April 2021. Aiming to provide customers with simple and easy ways to recycle their pods, the not-for-profit organisation was created by Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts (JDE). As a team, these big-name brands also own Nespresso, Nescafé Dolce Gusto, Tassimo, L'OR and Starbucks at Home.
You can recycle used coffee pods through Podback in three ways:
Podback is currently only available to Nestlé and JDE brand customers, although the scheme's organisers hope that it will eventually be available to all pod coffee drinkers as other brands join the scheme.
As well as the option of recycling through the Podback scheme, there are two additional options to help you recycle your used capsules if you are a Nespresso customer. For both, you'll need to from any Nespresso boutique or online – each bag holds up to 65 Vertuo capsules or 150 Original capsules.
The brand's capsules are made from aluminium, which it describes as an 'infinitely recyclable material.' It also claims aluminium is 'unparalleled at protecting the coffee inside from light, moisture and air'.
Lavazza has its own range of compostable pods – Eco Caps. Once you're done enjoying your espresso, these caps can be chucked into a food waste bin. They are then sent to an industrial composting facility and used to make nutrient-rich soil. But note that you should check your local council's rules for disposal beforehand.
If you don't have access to food waste bins, you can turn to Lavazza's Eco Caps Composting Programme, which is managed through Terracycle. Lavazza Eco Caps can be disposed of in two ways: by leaving them at a public drop-off location during designated hours (there's an ) or by setting up your own public drop-off location.
All Lavazza Eco Caps compatible with Nespresso coffee machines are accepted through the Eco Caps Composting Programme. Eco Caps compatible with Lavazza A Modo Mio coffee machines are as well.
However, the following waste is not accepted:
Assuming there are no public drop-off points within a five-mile radius, you can set up your own by creating a TerraCycle account and filling out an online form.
Like Lavazza, Illy also has a partnership in place with TerraCycle. Used capsules are collected and then the plastic and aluminium are separated out and recycled to make materials for new products. Used coffee is turned into compost to reduce waste.
The process is fairly straightforward. You need to collect your used Illy coffee capsules in a plastic bag and then reuse the box your capsules were delivered in. Use the box to make a parcel that keeps the bag secure, but make sure you've collected 'at least 200 capsules' – that weighs in at around 2kg.
Technically, you can recycle Dualit’s plastic NX pods in your usual collection if you dismantle, empty and clean them out, though this is onerous, and plastic pods can be difficult for local authorities to recycle in practice.
Dualit also sells a range of compostable capsules. These need to be composted industrially using your local council’s food waste collection scheme (if available in your area).
Individually packed, pre-filled coffee pods used in capsule coffee machines are delightfully convenient, but the packaging can sometimes prove a pain to recycle. In fact, in some cases, it's not recyclable at all.
Reusable coffee capsules can be filled up with ground coffee, used together with your capsule machine and then cleaned out to be used again. This obviously reduces the number of pods you power through per week, plus you'll be able to use any ground coffee you like.
Quick guide: reusable coffee pods
To see if reusable coffee pods for Nespresso and Dolce Gusto are worth buying, we've been hands-on with pods from brands such as Sealpod and Wapcap.
On a mission to find the tastiest, we tried four pods for Nespresso machines (as this is the most popular type) and one that works with Dolce Gusto machines. Our shortlist was comprised of a mix of plastic and stainless steel models, with differing designs. Some had a reusable lid, while others used disposable stickers instead.
For each reusable pod in our test, we checked how easy it was to fill, seal, use and clean. We also asked our panel of coffee-tasting experts to blind taste espresso made with each capsule.
We used the same type of ground coffee for each, so we could compare how well it turned out using the different pods.
All the reusable coffee capsules we tested were fairly simple to use, although some were a little trickier to seal than others, and one was especially difficult to clean. Some of the metal pods were very hot after extraction, although most advise you to leave the pod for a few minutes before removing it.
Our panel didn’t think any of the capsules produced particularly good coffee, though. It tended to be thinner and less well-rounded. The Lictin and WayCap pods made especially poor brews.
Overall, we thought the SealPod capsules made the best coffee, but they still have disposable parts you need to keep buying, and are expensive in the first place. The plastic Alchemy pods made decent coffee, so these could be a good budget alternative.
Here’s a rundown of the pods we tested and our verdict on each.
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Alchemy Refillable Pods (plastic)
£15.95 (six capsules per pack)
Easy to use, makes OK coffee and affordable
Lictin Reusable Coffee Capsules (plastic)
£9.99 (three capsules per pack)
Difficult to clean and makes disappointing coffee
SealPod Reusable capsules (stainless steel)
£35.90 ( two capsules per pack)
A little better than the others overall, but expensive and uses fiddly disposable sticker seals
WayCap Refillable capsules (stainless steel)
£34.50 (one capsule per pack)
Pricey, slightly tricky to seal and makes disappointing coffee
SealPod DGpod Reusable capsules (stainless steel)
£33.55 (one capsule per pack)
Makes decent coffee, but expensive, requires disposable paper filters and careful positioning
Prices above correct as of February 2021.
If you’re a capsule machine owner looking for an alternative to single-serve pods, reusable pods could be worth a try. But they aren’t as straightforward to use as disposable capsules, so they might take some time to get used to. The pressure at which you tamp (compress) the coffee grounds as well as the pressure of the water passing through it can affect the results you get, so finding the optimal setup could involve some trial and error.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the time you spend filling, emptying and cleaning these pods somewhat negates the convenience of using pods in the first place. And if you’ve got a favourite Nespresso or Dolce Gusto coffee, you won’t be able to get hold of this for your refillable pods either.
If you’re looking to reduce the amount of household waste you create, kicking your coffee pod habit could be a good place to start. But you don't need to abandon your machine entirely – our blind taste tests have uncovered some exceptionally tasty compostable pods.
Nespresso’s own aluminium pods can be recycled via its dedicated scheme, but plenty of compatible pods can’t as they are made of plastic. Even after you've dismantled and cleaned them out, you may still struggle to find a facility that's equipped to deal with them.
According to the manufacturers, compostable capsules biodegrade into harmless substances. If several people at home are keen coffee drinkers, you could be getting through four or more pods per day, so being able to compost your used pods could really cut down on your household waste.
You can deal with the waste via one of two methods:
Compostable vs biodegradable: what’s the difference?
In order for a product to be compostable, it has to meet a specific EU standard (EN 13432). This includes various requirements, one of which is that after 12 weeks at least 90% of the product should have disintegrated enough to fit through a 2mm sieve.
Biodegradable materials disintegrate in soil, air and water over time. But there is no set timeline for this term, so a biodegradable material could take many years to break down.
Our panel of coffee experts blind-tasted 20 compostable Nespresso pods, from brands such as Dualit, Colonna, The Eden Project, Grind, Halo, Rave, Blue Goose and Roar Gill.
Three compostable pods were so lip-lickingly good that we had no choice but to name them Which? Best Buys. Our top-scoring pod treated our panel to a strong, full-bodied coffee with a complex flavour and a mild sweetness.
Overall, our panel was impressed with the quality of the coffee from compostable pods. These pods tend to be made by smaller, independent roasters, and our experts praised the variety of interesting coffees available.
But some compostable pods weren't as popular with our judging panel. At the bottom of our table was a pod one taster described as 'Marmite-y' – another noted a peanut-like aftertaste, which certainly won't appeal to everyone.
The materials used to make compostable pods are permeable, so the flavours won't last as long in your cupboard as they might in plastic pods. As a result, you may want to avoid buying in bulk as the coffee can deteriorate over time.
Check the manufacturer's instructions for details on where to store your pods as this differs by brand. Lavazza told us to keep them safe in a 'cool, dry place.' Blue Goose (a brand included in our taste test) also suggested somewhere dry, adding that 'a tin or jar is perfect, or a bowl next to your coffee machine'. Dualit told us not to remove its compostable pods from their white bags until it's time to use them – this will help to maintain optimum freshness.
Most of the time, though, you should be keeping your collection in an airtight container that's in a cool, dry place. Keep your pods away from the fridge or freezer.
Pod machines are undeniably tempting. They make it quick and easy to make a consistently good brew, without worrying about measuring and preparing your coffee correctly.
But it's worth considering the alternatives, as with a little bit of practice they can quickly make tasty coffee, and you can sidestep the accompanying eco guilt. Take a closer look at: