Coffee capsules are controversial

Coffee capsules are divisive. While some people cling to their fast, hot single shot, others point to the waste. And coffee capsules are controversial. Start-up companies are offering biodegradable capsules at lower prices than the branded versions, causing uproar in the expanding industry.

Coffee from the capsule machine is quickly made and very popular. But the aluminium and plastic containers land up in the refuse after brewing – eight million a day of them in Germany alone. The start-up company UniCaps has developed a capsule made of renewable materials, filled with organically grown coffee and tea. For this sustainable idea, the Brandenburg-based company received the 2019 KfW Entrepreneur’s Award for Brandenburg.

The “My-CoffeeCup” brand can now be bought in many supermarkets. What’s special about it is that the capsules are environmentally friendly. They are made of starch and glucose as well as lignin, a residue from paper and wood processing, so they are fully biodegradable. Under ideal conditions, they decompose in around 30 weeks and can be incinerated in household waste without emitting any harmful substances.

Dirk N. Tillmann, who founded UniCaps together with Max Sandherr in 2016, knows his target group: 15 per cent of Germans own a Nespresso capsule machine. However, he notes that more and more users are having problems with their conscience with conventional capsules. “What motivated us was the search for an alternative to market leaders Nespresso and Nescafé Dolce Gusto. The machines are on the market and in use. We’re not on a crusade, but if we can make existing things better, that’s a major advance,” says Tillmann.

Development of the capsules was expensive and took two years. Initially, the focus was on filling capsules with tea. “This was a complex technical task, as, the tea needs to develop as much aroma in 30 seconds as if it had brewed for five minutes,” explains Tillmann. “Our secret is to gently break the tea leaves to increase the surface area. This releases the aromas and essential oils.” The quick-brew tea was launched in 2017 with a large-scale marketing campaign under the name “My-TeaCup”. It was so successful that UniCaps was asked for coffee in organic capsules. Today, production has quadrupled, with coffee now accounting for the larger share.

Competition over organic capsules

The Bremen-based start-up company Ethicaps also aims to conquer the market for Nespresso-compatible coffee capsules with sustainable packaging at low prices. Ethicaps has been selling the capsules to online customers since December 2019. Unicaps has sent a warning letter, claiming that consumers are being misled and advertising to retailers is illegal. Ethicaps is unworried, saying that the industry will see it as attempted intimidation.

In Austria, the discounter Hofer, which is part of the Aldi-Süd group of companies, is making headway with sustainable capsules: Hofer now offers its customers a biodegradable packaging alternative without aluminium and conventional plastic under its own organic brand “Natur aktiv”. The TÜV Austria-certified capsules are mainly made of organic renewable raw materials and can be disposed of in domestic refuse, according to the company. The bio-polymer capsules are made from sunflower husks, the starch-based bioplastics PBS and PBSA and 100 per cent natural mineral filler. The capsules, which are suitable for Nespresso machines, are filled with UTZ-certified organic coffee in a range of varieties. 35 per cent of Austrians buy their coffee in capsule form, according to the Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung.

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