Single-use coffee pods have damaging effects on the environment. That is the stance the German city of Hamburg is taking, banning the capsules from council-run buildings.

As the first city in the world to ban coffee pods, Hamburg’s decision is part of an attempt to reduce waste and find more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Jan Dube, from the Hamburg Department of Environment and Energy, explained the council’s decision: “The capsules can’t be recycled easily because they are often made of a mixture of plastic and aluminium.”

Noting that the pods cause “unnecessary resource consumption and waste generation” the department came to the conclusion that the pods “shouldn’t be bought with taxpayers’ money”.

In the past decade the world has embraced the coffee capsule – sales of the pods in Western Europe and the US have more than tripled since 2011.

As of 2012, Nespresso had sold more than 27 billion pods worldwide since launching in 1986. It is said that if you lined up all the single-use coffee pods sold by market leader Keurig, they would circle the world 12 times over.

Do coffee pods harm the environment?

Used pods have be disposed of somehow. Critics say the capsules, usually made of a mixture of plastic and aluminium, are difficult to recycle, resulting in many being dumped as waste.

With a 6g portion of coffee in 3g of packaging, these pods are seen by some to be impractical both economically and environmentally. Meanwhile, other methods of making coffee have a much lower environmental impact.

Major manufacturers have pledged to create recyclable versions, with Keurig saying it plans to achieve this by 2020. Keurig sold almost 10 billion portion packs in 2014, only 5% of which were recyclable.

James Hamblin, founder of Keurig, and inventor of America’s biggest selling capsule, the K-cup, told The Atlantic: “No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable.”

Referring to his invention, he noted: “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it.”

Are they really that bad for the planet?

Are coffee pods having such a dramatic effect on the environment? Not everyone thinks so.

Bloomberg writer Adam Minter disputes claims that coffee pods are damaging the planet, saying that critics have lost “any perspective about how to measure the environmental impact of the stuff we consume”.

Minter calculates that coffee pods accounted for around 0.05% of the 49 million tons of solid waste generated in Germany in 2012, and only 0.01% of the 251 million tons generated in the United States.

He says the environmental impact of coffee should be counted from cultivation of the beans, through brewing, to disposal. Research has found that the brewing process – involving water and energy – and its associated carbon emissions have the biggest impact on the environment.

However, Minter doesn’t totally dismiss Hamburg’s decision, noting that the city’s ban isn’t ‘entirely misguided’.

“Waste and disposal are critical environmental issues,” he acknowledges, going on to say: “But they’re not the only priorities, and they shouldn’t be considered in a vacuum.”

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