By Sylvain Charlebois
Wed., May 11, 2016
Canadians love their coffee. More than 91 per cent of Canadians drink some amount of coffee, at home or elsewhere, every day. Not surprisingly, the single-serve coffee market has emerged as a significant consumer growth segment.
It is estimated 40 per cent of homes own single-serve brewers and use coffee pods, also known as k-cups. With convenience, however, comes increased waste and consumers are starting to connect their love of the single-serve brewing machine with the guilt of the reality of the garbage can.
With a whopping 10 billion coffee pods thrown away globally each year, consumers are starting to show signs they are willing to walk away from the product. The city of Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany, even banned the use of single-serve coffee pods from its council buildings earlier this year. However, there are ways to create the opportunity for consumers to feel environmentally responsible, while continuing their affair with the single-serve coffee phenomenon.
Coffee pods first appeared in 1976 with Nespresso. In order to address the sustainability issue, most of the industry favoured reverse logistics, also known as recycling.
As such, early Nespresso adopters were expected to break up the product into several parts in order to make it a recyclable item, which, as it turns out, was seen as an unreasonable expectation for most consumers. It was quickly understood that the single-serve concept is convenience-driven, and a green supply chain solution ought to be equally convenient.
The compostable pod, a technology developed in Canada by the University of Guelph and championed by Club Coffee, a well-known food vendor based in Toronto, is now ready to be commercialized.
This product is the only single-serve coffee pod designed to be digested by bacteria. Involving both business and academia, this project stands to make a significant innovative contribution to the market.
The path to launching this technology has not been easy. A combination of product development and social engineering, it appears municipalities, the caretakers of the technology at the end of the products’ lifecycle, have been somewhat neophobic to the compostable pod.
However, with testing, municipal officials have realized the product does break down as advertised, unlike other self-proclaimed recyclable food packaging municipalities have been presented with in the past.
The real issues are composting stewardship and funding. Resistance to the compostable pod stems from uncertainty with waste collection funding, particularly in Ontario.
Put simply, municipalities are not pleased with the funding model: composting is not funded and recycling is. Municipalities expect some budgetary relief from the province in Bill 151, presented in November 2015. However, doubts remain and without some much needed clarity, waste will continue to be generated.
While companies may come up with the best of technologies based on sound environmental values, the reality of the marketplace is much more complicated. Galen Weston recently endorsed the compostable coffee pods by Club Coffee at Loblaw’s recent annual general meeting and served it to guests. This is a significant call out from Canada’s No. 1 food retailer.
Consumers should voice their concerns and point to a better solution, which already exists. In this way, business cases for more improved and sustainable solutions in food packaging will only get stronger.
But this is just the beginning. With an aging boomer population and the number of people living alone steadily growing, the single-serve philosophy will be key in food innovation. As compostable technologies in grocery stores are increasingly available to consumers, policymakers from all governments will need to find a new funding model in order to support enhanced composting facilities across the country.
Beyond composting, single-serve packaging may be edible in the future. Technologies developed by forward-thinking food companies could allow us to reduce the amount of household organic and nonorganic waste all together. While this would be a significant step forward, we need to first give these innovative thinkers a fighting chance.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is the dean of the Faculty of Management and professor in the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University.