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Guilt free caffeine

If there wasn’t already enough guilt surrounding drinking coffee, here’s another coffee-related problem. The pods traditionally used in those handy coffee machines are an environmental hazard, taking hundreds of years to decompose.

Enter university mates Josh Cole, 23, and Jayden Klinac, 24, with a solution. The pair are founders of The Honest Coffee Company, the only New Zealand distributor of biodegradeable coffee pods made by a Swiss firm, the Ethical Coffee Company (ECC).

ECC pods are made of plant fibre and starch and decompose within six months, which is apparently quicker than an orange peel. The Honest Coffee Company was the winning idea at the second Idealog Live/Pitch Circus event.

Coffee pods are a small product generating big business – and a lot of waste – internationally. Basically a pod is a small, pre-packaged unit of ground coffee, which is loaded into a pod coffee machine and (like a tea bag) produces a single cup of coffee.

Unlike a tea bag, they are mostly made of plastic or aluminium, and don’t decompose. And the numbers are big.

In 2012 alone, a single player, Nespresso, sold more than 27 billion pods worldwide. Meanwhile, coffee-drinking connoisseurs over in Europe spent $10 million in 2013 on coffee pod machines, surpassing drip coffee machine sales for the first time. 

In New Zealand, sales of Nespresso coffee machines – the leading brand here – rose 87% in the year to February 2014.

However, consumers caught up in the convenience of the coffee pod revolution may not realise – or are wilfully ignoring – the environmental repercussions, Klinac says.   

Just 5% of plastic coffee capsules made by North American market leader Keurig are recyclable, says non-profit news organisation Mother Jones. And if you put all the 8.3 billion Keurig pods discarded in 2013 in a line, they would stretch around the earth more than 10 times. 

Nespresso offers a recycling option for its aluminium pods, but customers have to collect them up and deliver them to one of two Nespresso stores in Auckland and Wellington.  If not, the pods can take up to 500 years to break down in landfill, according to recycling statistics. 

Klinac says he first became interested in the coffee pod industry as a student at Otago University, when he saw his flatmate’s Nespresso machine. 

“I did some research and learnt how bad pods were for the environment and how people wanted convenience and forgot about everything else.” 

After months spent trying – and failing – to invent a biodegradable pod, Klinac heard about the Ethical Coffee Company, which is run by Nespresso’s former chief executive Jean-Paul Gaillard.  

The company makes an eco-friendly, Nespresso machine-compatible alternative to the current aluminium capsules on the market. The Honest Coffee Company managed to secure exclusive rights to the pods, despite Klinac and Cole having virtually no business experience.

Honest Coffee Company eco-pods are now stocked in various Harvey Norman, New World and Huckleberry Farm stores across New Zealand, and can also be bought through the company’s website. 

Klinac says the quality of the coffee, not the biodegradability, was the primary focus. 

“With our capsules, coffee quality is just as high [as other coffee pods] but you can put them in your general waste. The biodegradability is allowing consumers to have the convenience without changing their habits,” he says. 

Their journey hasn’t been without its challenges, however. A cunning move by Nespresso (a subsidiary of Swiss-based food giant Nestlé), to change the design of its machines so ECC pods didn’t work, resulted in court battles between ECC and Nespresso.

In 2014, ECC won a lawsuit against Nespresso for “unfair competition” and Nespresso was ordered to pay more than 500,000 euros to ECC as well as agree to give four months warning to competitors before changing their machines. Meanwhile, a 15 million euro patent infringement lawsuit is ongoing.

Klinac says the next step for the Honest Coffee Company is getting the eco-pods into more New Zealand stores.

Meanwhile, the Ethical Coffee Company is developing a new coffee capsule you can chuck directly onto the garden, thereby releasing nutrients directly into the soil.

Elly is Idealog's editor and resident dog enthusiast. She enjoys travelling, tea, good books, and writing about exciting ideas and cool entrepreneurs.

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