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Sylvain CharleboisCanadians love their coffee but the rise of single-serve brewers has created an environmental headache: What to do with used coffee pods?

More than 91 percent of Canadian adults drink some coffee, at home or elsewhere, every day. Not surprisingly, single-serve coffee has emerged as a significant consumer growth market. About 27 percent of homes have single-serve brewers and use coffee pods.

With convenience, however, comes increased waste, and consumers are starting to connect their love of the single-serve brewing machine with the guilt that the garbage can represents. With a whopping 10 billion coffee pods thrown away globally each year, consumers are starting to walk away from the product. For example, Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany, banned the use of single-serve coffee pods from its council buildings earlier this year.

However, there are ways for consumers to feel environmentally responsible while continuing their affair with the single-serve coffee phenomenon.

Nespresso first introduced coffee pods in 1976. Early Nespresso users could break the product into several parts to make it recyclable. But this turned out to be an unreasonable expectation for most consumers. It is now understood that single-serve is convenience-driven, and a green supply chain solution ought to be equally convenient.

Forty years later, convenient solutions are being developed.

The compostable pod, developed by the University of Guelph and championed by Club Coffee, a well-known Toronto-based food vendor, is ready to go. It is the only single-serve coffee pod designed to be digested by bacteria. The coffee chaff is reclaimed using bio-composite technology, and new bio-resin rings and lids are employed, allowing food waste to be significantly reduced.

This innovative project, involving business and academia, stands to make a significant contribution to the market.

The path to launching this technology, which is a combination of product development and social engineering, has not been easy.

Municipalities, the caretakers of the technology at the end of the products’ lifecycle, did not initially embrace the compostable pod. However, with testing, municipal officials have come to realize that the product does break down as advertised – unlike other self-proclaimed recyclable food packaging products that they have been presented with in the past.

The bigger issues are composting stewardship and funding. Resistance to the compostable pod stems from uncertainty around funding for waste collection between municipalities and governments, particularly in Ontario. Municipalities are not pleased about how the funding model works – composting is not funded but 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 unnecessarily 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. But strides are being made. Loblaw chairman and president Galen Weston recently endorsed Club Coffee’s compostable pods at his company’s annual general meeting and served it to attendees. That’s a significant call-out from Canada’s No. 1 food retailer.

However, the broader industry will only make significant moves if consumers voice concerns, point to better solutions and choose those solutions. That would help build business cases for improved and sustainable food packaging solutions.

And this is just the beginning.

With an aging baby boomer population and the number of people living alone steadily growing, the single-serve philosophy will be key in food innovation. Compostable food serving technologies are increasingly available to consumers, and that means policy-makers from all levels of government must find new funding models to support enhanced composting facilities across the country.

Single-serve packaging could even be edible in the future. Technologies from forward-thinking food companies and academia could allow us to eliminate household waste all together.

But to accomplish these significant goals, we need to give today’s innovative thinkers and their products a fighting chance, even if it is one cup of coffee at a time.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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