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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Designing a Sustainable Coffee Pod:
Club Coffee’s PurPod100

It’s Waste Reduction Week in Canada, and to celebrate, I spoke to some superstar companies reducing waste through product design that are featured in the National Zero Waste Council’s Design Portfolio. Previously, I interviewed the inventor of the world’s first reusable beeswax food wraps. In this second article of the three-part series, I spoke to Claudio Gemmiti, Club Coffee’s SVP of Innovation and Strategic Growth.

Club Coffee’s PurPod100™ is the world’s first certified 100 percent compostable pod for the North American single-serve market of coffee, tea and other hot beverages. The pods are being used by big brands, including McDonald’s McCafé and Loblaws’ President’s Choice.

“Single serve is here to stay. It has revolutionized the coffee industry – even more so in Canada than in the U.S., but still, now single serve is actually the number-one selling format in the industry,” Gemmiti said. “So, all of us who make single serve at this point recognize that with the convenience that’s come into the category, we still need to address some very simple things that consumers expect. We need to make a great cup of coffee, but consumers are concerned about the waste that comes with the format, as well.”

“Even though we’ve done a lifecycle analysis and shown that single serve actually reduces coffee waste versus drip coffee, consumers still don’t like what they see when they look at their trash bins. They don’t like the accumulation of waste they’ve seen over the years,” he continued. “Everyone who’s in the single-serve business – us and our competitors – recognize that this is something that they need to address; everybody is working on a solution. We’ve focused on compostable because we think it’s the most intuitive and impactful solution.”

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In addition to end of life and disposal, Club Coffee also worked to ensure its inputs and operations for producing the pods are as sustainable as possible, which sometimes meant developing new materials. Currently 89 percent of the pods are made from renewable resources, including its corn-based filters. Club Coffee and researchers at the University of Guelph co-developed rings for the pods using coffee chaff, a “waste” product of the coffee bean roasting process. It has become a critical material for them – nearly 100 percent of Club Coffee’s chaff is reclaimed for use in PurPod100 rings, which further diverts organic waste from landfills.

Reducing packaging waste is a trickier issue, but they’re working on it. In addition to the basics, such as using recycled cardboard, Club Coffee is developing an alternative to its foil-lined “mother bag” that the pods come in. In the meantime they are encouraging reuse of the bag, which Gemmiti says can be washed out and used like any other “zip”-sealed bag.

“Oxygen is not the friend of coffee,” Gemmiti explained. “We need to protect the coffee, and there are only certain materials that you can do that with that are going to give you the shelf life that is required for commercial coffee sales.”

There are also challenges related to municipalities’ ability to recycle certain materials. Gemmiti gave the example of overwraps for the pods; they could use more expensive plastics or other materials to make consumers feel better about the packaging, but those materials are unlikely to be recyclable by most facilities and ultimately adds costs. At the same time, Club Coffee has worked extensively with municipalities to ensure that their facilities are confident that they can process their pods. Since there is lots of variation in industrial composting systems, a “door-to-door salesman” approach has been necessary with municipalities, along with consumer education. While not ideal, this approach is certainly moving the needle.

“Municipalities and waste management experts across the country are starting to recognize that there needs to be some other approach to this that allows it to move ahead and evolve,” Gemmiti noted.

He believes existing certification programs are a good basis to build on (Gemmiti gave the example of the Biodegradable Products Institute [BPI] and the Bureau de normalisation du Québec [BNQ]). He sees them as part of the solution to issues such as how certifications are flagged on products, and promoting ongoing innovation in food- and organic-waste processing systems that would help encourage businesses to develop compostable alternatives where recycling is not practical or available.

Additionally, “I believe they need to work towards some sort of harmonization process, from an industrial composting point of view,” Gemmiti suggested. “[A certification body might] say, ‘we’re going to choose five composters from across the country and you need to get your product certified by BPI or BNQ, then tested in two of them to prove that your technology will work across the vast majority of these systems, again recognizing that there’s a lot of variation in these systems.”

At the same time, he still recognizes the value in efforts that are not certification-centric. The National Zero Waste Council’s Design Portfolio, for instance, involves an application process but is not a certification. To be included in the Portfolio, products are evaluated based on three (simplified) stages of their lifecycle: pre-, during and post-use. It also has a substantive set of design principles vetted by external professionals to guide a way forward towards design that prevents and/or reduces waste. These factors keep the Portfolio easy to understand and offer direction to designers and companies aiming to deliver on waste prevention and reduction.

Interested businesses with at least one exemplary product or packaging are encouraged to apply.

“How can one not be excited to be profiled?” Gemmiti said. “The [National Zero Waste Council] organization is such a credible and objective body that is recognized internationally. For them to say, ‘we want to feature these products and initiatives,’ puts so much credibility behind what we’ve done.”


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