Coffee chaff, above, is used to make compostable ring for PürPod100 capsule.
By Anne-Marie Hardie
North American households love single-serve’s convenience and variety but are increasingly concerned about its ecologically heavy footprint. Convenience remains the primary driver but sales momentum is slowing and roasters, retailers and brand managers acknowledge that marketing 20 billion capsules per year produces a lot of packaging waste.
Mintel International found that two in five single-cup coffee consumers (44%) are drinking single-cup less often due to its environmental impact. Nine in 10 single-cup users (88%) say all packaging should be biodegradable or compostable.
August coffee consumption data compiled by StudyLogic for the National Coffee Association (NCA) showed 16.6% growth in US single-serve servings to 1.6 billion capsules per month compared to 1.4 billion in August 2014. The annual growth rate is expected to reach $7.75 billion by 2020, according to Mintel. Household penetration continues to rise. An estimated 50 billion capsules will be discarded globally this year.
Reducing waste is a priority for every key player in the industry, including Toronto-based Club Coffee, one of North America’s oldest and largest private label roasters.
“There is a real sustainability issue when it comes to the amount of packaging now going into landfills that wasn’t going there before,” said Claudio Gemmiti, Club Coffee’s senior v.p., innovation and strategic growth. “So what could we do?” he asks.
The company decided that producing a recyclable product was not the best choice. At its core recycling coffee pods is just not convenient, explains Gemmiti. Municipal recycling guidelines require consumers to break the capsule open, separate the coffee grounds or tea leaves from the lid and sort plastic components. Club Coffee wanted a less complicated solution: an entirely compostable cup.
Inventing certifiable materials
Every component in the capsule design plays a critical role in ensuring the best quality cup. Club Coffee’s existing capsule design made good coffee – the problem was the materials used in manufacturing. None of the capsules in the market were readily recyclable much less compostable. “It required Club Coffee to develop three entirely new materials, all of which break down in composting facilities to obtain BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) certification,” said Gemmiti. BPI certified products must be made of approved materials that leave no residues after processing in municipal or industrial facilities. The certification process itself is administered by NSF International.
The unique properties of all three major components of the existing design – capsule, ring, filter and lid, had to be replicated using compostable materials – some of which didn’t even exist “You are going to have a hard time making this work without entirely different materials,” said Gemmiti.
The result is PürPod100, a ground-breaking fully biodegradable capsule. The lid is made of paper with a layer of PLA (polylactic acid) and a patented vapor barrier. The green ring printed on the lid surface contains a proprietary ink known as a taggant, another Club Coffee development that allows the pods to function in the latest Keurig 2.0 model brewers. PLA is a biodegradable thermoplastic aliphatic polyester derived from renewable resources such as corn, tapioca root, starch and sugarcane.
Finding the right material for the filter body of the PürPod100 was the most challenging aspect of the design as it required a material easily thermoformed and readily compostable. Club’s conventional capsules are shaped from a flat roll of nonwoven filter material sized by heated anvil plungers that push the material into a mold, forming a pocket. Recipes require pockets that hold different volumes. Pockets are narrower and shallower for tea, for example, and deeper for some organic coffees. Compostable PLA is readily available but its crystalline structure resists thermoforming.
Not one to give up, Club Coffee began experimenting with ways to manipulate PLA without sacrificing its compostability. Stretching the material was easy; but preserving the uniform mesh essential to filter the coffee with consistency proved difficult.
“You want it to be able to make a really good cup of coffee, with the same dissolved solids each time, and you don’t want any grinds to come through,” says Gemmiti.
Club Coffee eventually realized the ideal material didn’t exist. “We had to invent special materials from scratch,” said Gemmiti. Club Coffee turned to the bio resin experts at the University of Guelph to develop a sturdy plastic ring to support the pocket.
The result was a highly compostable bio-composite PLA comprised of bio resin mixed with more than 20% coffee chaff. The coffee chaff, a by-product of roasting, makes the plastic highly compostable. “Everybody has been blown away. The municipality took one look at it and said that will never break down, and then they put it into testing and it totally disappears,” said Gemmiti.
To preserve freshness coffee is packed in nitrogen and sealed. While the outer bag is not compostable, it can be reused in multiple ways, including as a freezer bag. Discovering new materials was critical but the PürPod100 could not slow their fill lines or increase the price of Club Coffee’s single-serve capsules.
The company, which operates a 70,000 sq. ft. roasting and filling plant, invested $50 million in a new 85,000 sq. ft. single-serve facility to offer the only BPI certified, 100% compostable capsule on the market. “The punch line is: we are ready to go,” said Gemmiti, “The PürPod100 is a commercial product.”
Roasters agree. Massimo Zanetti, announced in April it would switch its Hills Bros., Kauai Coffee, Segafredo Zanetti and Chock Full o’Nuts brands to PürPod100. Portland, Ore.,-based Boyd’s Coffee and Copper Moon Coffee in Lafayette, In., also switched. A leading retailer in Canada is preparing to convert their private label brands over to compostable pending municipal approvals. Retailers and brand owners across North America are queuing up to access the PürPod100 technology, said Gemmiti.
The next hurdle is curbside. The wide range of pods available on the market has led some municipalities to worry about compost contamination as consumers attempt to compost capsules that aren’t BPI certified and are NOT compostable.
“We’ve been working on getting the municipalities to agree that our cups can go into the green-bin (or brown-bin in some municipalities) program and that’s been the most challenging part of this,” said Gemmiti. “The fastest way to gain composting access for consumers in Canada is through the curbside collection programs which already exist,” he says.
Appearance is another concern. “Most people look at this product and say that’s an ugly duckling compared to the standard single-serve pods with hard plastic cups. But we take it and say, that ugly duckling is different and it looks different, and that’s what we are going to leverage when we communicate with people,” according to Gemmiti. “The brown ring with the soft pod is the one that is 100% compostable and BPI-Certified. That one goes in your green bin.”
Company representatives are literally knocking at the door of municipalities across North America, seeking acceptance into composting programs. They argue the PürPod100 is an ecological option available now and a good reason for every municipality to get on board.
The way Club Coffee sees it, the entire single-serve market could shift to compostable capsules. Twenty billion is a lot of capsules to convert but a practical and proven compostable capsule will put tremendous pressure on others in the industry to do the same.