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Yeah, actually, your plastic coffee pod may not be great for the climate

A display of Starbucks coffee pods at a Costco Warehouse in Pennsylvania. A recent article says using coffee pods might be better for the climate, but the science is far from settled. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar
A display of Starbucks coffee pods at a Costco Warehouse in Pennsylvania. A recent article says using coffee pods might be better for the climate, but the science is far from settled. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

You may have come across news headlines about coffee this week, like this one from the BBC: "Coffee pod carbon footprint better for planet than filtered brew."

The stories are about a short article published earlier this month that says single-use coffee pods may be better for the climate than other forms of coffee preparation.

The coverage by social media and news outlets came as good news to lots of people who have single-use coffee makers, since they've heard for years that the disposable metal and plastic capsules in their machines harm the environment. Columnist Matthew Yglesias tweeted out: "Vindication".

The problem is, the positive take on coffee pods and the climate might not be true.

Despite the hype, it's hard to know how solid the conclusions are in the article that blew up online this week. That's in part because the article isn't a formal study that has been peer-reviewed, which means it hasn't been vetted yet by other experts in the field. The article's lead author, Luciano Rodrigues Viana, a doctoral student at the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi, said in an email to NPR that he hopes to release a peer-reviewed study soon.

And research into the climate impact of coffee pods isn't settled. Viana's article says that coffee pods may have less emissions than other forms of coffee preparation. But a peer-reviewed paper from 2021 found the complete opposite: that coffee pods account for more emissions than other ways of making coffee, because of greenhouse gases from producing the pods' packaging and dealing with the waste.

Media scholars who study climate change aren't surprised by the hot takes on the article.

Headlines that say single-use coffee pods may be "environmentally friendly" have a lot of allure, says Max Boykoff, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.

"Novelty can really drive a news story," Boykoff says. "Something that could be seen as counterintuitive, that would grab people's attention."

The issue is that these kind of media stories can sidetrack us from the big picture of planet-heating emissions, and the much bigger sources of pollution than your coffee cup, Boykoff says.

"Shaming one another about the ways in which we brew coffee or whether we drink coffee at all, I think, actually, really does some damage and distracts us from some real challenges at hand, some real work that ought to be done."

This all started with one short article

Viana, the lead author, says he didn't expect this media attention. Earlier this month, he and his colleagues published their analysis comparing filtered coffee, French press coffee, instant coffee and coffee in single-use pods. They found that coffee pods may have less of an environmental impact than the other methods, because they may waste less water and coffee, and the machines may also use less electricity. Viana notes similar findings have also been published by a few other researchers.

But now the article has taken on a life of its own – it's even spawned at least one popular TikTok.

"I would like to clarify something," Viana writes in an email. "We did not write this article to encourage people to use pods/capsules (we even suggest using reusable capsules) or to stop drinking coffee. The goal was to focus on the major problems with coffee consumption at the consumer level."

But emissions in coffee consumption don't just come down to the consumer, Boykoff says. He says media coverage of what's driving emissions also has to take into account the role of larger companies. When it comes to single-use coffee, that means companies like Keurig Dr Pepper or Nespresso, corporations that make many of the plastic and metal pods consumers use.

Coffee pod manufacturers also have a role to play in emissions

Keurig Dr Pepper uses plastic to produce their pods. In addition to being difficult to recycle, plastic is derived from fossil fuels. A Keurig Dr Pepper spokesperson said data on the greenhouse gas emissions of their pods is proprietary information, and said in an email that they "remain focused on improving the sustainability attributes of our Keurig brewing system."

Nespresso, owned by Nestle, makes coffee pods primarily from aluminum, says Anna Marciano, head of sustainability and general counsel for Nespresso USA. She says the company works with municipalities like New York City on its recycling infrastructure for the aluminum pods and is also piloting a program for compostable coffee pods in Europe.

Nespresso spends more than $35 million annually on a coffee pod recycling program, according to Marciano. "It's not something that we're not investing in," she says.

And how much actually gets recycled in the U.S.? "We could be anywhere from 36% to 37% on a national basis," Marciano says.

When it comes to emissions, media scholars say keep your eye on the ball

Ultimately, climate media scholars worry that too much attention over individual actions like using coffee pods can distract us from climate solutions that can have a greater impact, like regulating the wider plastic or fossil fuel industries, says Jill Hopke, associate professor of journalism at DePaul University.

"And we can just get so mired up in this kind of accounting, right?" Hopke says. "Losing the bigger picture of what kind of societal changes do we need to make."

Boykoff, whose research has looked at the impact of media on climate action, says in the grand scheme of individual actions we can take on climate, reducing coffee intake isn't at the top of his list.

"Would my environmental impact be greater if I stopped eating meat today or if I stopped drinking coffee?" he asks. "I think the answer is clearly whether one chooses to eat meat or not."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.