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Are single-use coffee pods really more environmentally friendly?


You may have heard the buzz this week about coffee pods being better for the climate than what was previously thought. But are they really? Climate solutions reporter Julia Simon joins us now.

Julia, thanks so much for being with us.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And what began all this buzz, the articles and social media posts about coffee pods and the climate?

J SIMON: There was this short article by Canadian researchers that ran earlier this month. It looked at the carbon footprint of your coffee. So it compares instant coffee to filtered coffee, French press and those single-use coffee pods like you use in Keurig or Nespresso machines. The article writes that coffee pods may have less of an environmental impact than the others because they may waste less water in coffee. The machines that use pods also may use less electricity than the other methods.

SIMON: And that would seem to be encouraging news. And there are millions of people, and probably even more on their way to using single serve machines.

J SIMON: Oh, if only it was so simple. The first thing is that the article has not been peer reviewed yet. That means it hasn't been vetted by other experts and published in an academic journal. And this research just isn't settled. A study from two years ago that was peer reviewed said the complete opposite, that coffee from pods actually has more emissions because of the plastic and metals used to make the pod. The article that has caused all this media fury, the lead author says they hope to get it peer reviewed. He's very surprised by all this media attention. But you know who isn't surprised? People who study media and climate change. Headlines like this that say, your coffee capsule may actually be environmentally friendly - they're alluring. Max Boykoff is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.

MAX BOYKOFF: Novelty can really drive a news story - something that could be seen as counterintuitive that would grab people's attention that otherwise may not be something that might seem newsworthy.

SIMON: So, I mean, I gather from all this that talking about climate solutions is certainly important. But you're cautioning we have to be careful about the ideas that we can put forward in our coverage.

J SIMON: This is true, because people will hear about this study and they'll think, oh, this big newspaper or NPR is covering it, so it has to be correct. We have to be careful, though, when it comes to climate change solutions. Boykoff says that while individual action is important for climate change, media coverage also has to take into account the role of companies, like Keurig, Dr. Pepper or Nespresso, that make these pods.

SIMON: And what are those companies doing about the carbon emissions of their pods?

J SIMON: Keurig uses plastic for those pods, in addition to being difficult to actually recycle, plastic is derived from fossil fuels. Keurig says the greenhouse gas emissions of their pods is proprietary information, and they're committed to improving the sustainability of their products. Anna Marciano is the head of sustainability for Nespresso.

ANNA MARCIANO: In Europe, we are piloting compostable capsules, but the aluminum is what we pride ourselves on.

J SIMON: She says they spend over $35 million a year on a recycling program for those aluminum pods. Still, she says, in the U.S., only about 36, 37% of those pods actually get recycled.

SIMON: At the same time, Julia, is there anything wrong about people wanting to do better when it comes to making their coffee?

J SIMON: No, no. I mean, people also have reusable pods. They want to be responsible consumers. But let's not take our eye off the ball here. In the grand scheme of emissions, coffee really isn't that big as, say, meat or dairy or cars or power plants.

SIMON: Julia Simon of NPR's climate desk. Whole latte thanks. Sorry.

J SIMON: (Laughter) You couldn't resist. It's great. Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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.