The great coffee debate

I read this week that the City of Hamburg has banned coffee pod machines from all of its government buildings, offices and institutions including schools and universities, as part of a wider effort to reduce waste and energy consumption (

A noble intention it maybe but given that for many of us here in the UK, the right to drink a hot beverage of our choice is somewhere close to that of free speech, my sympathies are with the workers. Judging by the tirade of comments that the article spawned on the US-based web site our American cousins seem to feel the same way.

Topics that are close to our hearts (like coffee and George Clooney) may get us excited but this discussion is totally missing the point. The argument about the recyclability of well-portioned coffee capsules versus food waste and overconsumption will never be won because it is just one factor in a so many variables from refuse collection to human nature.

Sustainability, or in this case, efficient use of material resources, is by definition a shared goal. It requires joined up, end-to-end, systems-level thinking. The coffee pod is neither good nor bad of itself. The pods may be recyclable but if the system to collect or return them is not foolproof, many will end up in the household bin, along with used takeaway cups and the spent coffee granules from our cafeterias and espresso machines.

If our municipal waste collection and recycling systems were able to recover valuable materials efficiently then that nice man on the motorbike wouldn’t need to use fuel coming round and collect your empty pods. If products and systems were designed from the outset for optimum use and re-use of materials, then maybe more efficient municipal waste systems would be a realistic possibility.

It is about working together in a productive and dynamic way, not arguing for one system over another. When collaboration and innovation happen at the business and systems level, then there is possibility for real change and competitive advantage. Look at Ellen McArthur’s CE 100 or the National Industrial Symbiosis Network for some great examples of this principle in action.

When it comes to coffee I am all for the recycling of aluminium pods but lets remember it is just one small part of a whole product and system life cycle. If we are going to be successful in looking after each other and the planet we all live on then we need to think wider and smarter. Just look what Biobean is doing with its industrialised process for recycling waste coffee grounds into advanced biofuels. Now that is something worth getting exited about!  Coffee anyone?

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