Compost this coffee pod, just not in Vancouver

City facilities unequipped to properly process bioplastics like the Nexe Pod's inner liner

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By Sena Law

A new compostable coffee pod has been created by UBC’s Zachary Hudson, though things may not be as green as they seem. In the right facility, the product can be fully composted. In Vancouver, our green waste facilities are unable to do the same.

Hudson, a Vancouver-based chemist, launched the Nexe Pod along with Nexe Innovations in February, marketing it as a fully compostable coffee pod that will keep coffee fresher for longer, which other recyclable coffee pods have struggled to achieve.

The problem with bioplastics

The pod is made up of a bamboo outer jacket and a bioplastic inner capsule — the latter making it possible to be properly composted only in special organic waste facilities, like Surrey Biofuel which was opened in 2018.

In these facilities, the new coffee pods turn into compost in as little as 35 days.

But in Vancouver, biodegradable or bioplastic products, such as the Nexe Pod, are nearly guaranteed to end up in the landfill, according to Kai-lani Rutland, a representative from Vancouver Landfill. Rutland said this is due to the fact that bioplastics are labelled as contaminants and cannot be processed properly.

“Contaminants are most likely to be removed from composting and recycling streams and then disposed of at landfill or incinerator,” Rutland said. The city encourages food vendors and residents to choose reusable alternatives wherever possible.

Michael Levenston, executive director of City Farmer, a group that operates the city’s compost hotline, said bioplastics are labelled as contaminants because of the majority of facilities’ inability to distinguish between them and conventional plastics.

The Surrey Biofuel facility, which opened in 2018, participated in the development of the Nexe Pod to ensure the product would be fully compostable. Photo: City of Surrey

No guarantees in the world of garbage

“You’re dealing with the garbage world, which is a mysterious world,” Levenston said. “You want to think all the green waste does go to a compost facility, but unless you’re on the trucks, you don’t know where it’s going.”

According to the City of Vancouver’s Doug Thomas, the city’s compost has two destinations. Green waste is routed to GFL Environmental in Delta, while yard trimmings head to the Vancouver Landfill. At both sites, the material is turned into compost, but neither is fully equipped to process bioplastics. When included, these products degrade the quality of the finished compost.

Vancouver has no plans to develop an organics processing facility, Thomas said.

Currently, a Keurig-compatible K-Cup is available online, and Nexe Innovations plans to have Nespresso-compatible pods out for late 2021.

Over 40 billion similar coffee pods find their way into landfills per year. Each pod takes around 100 to 150 years to fully decompose, Hudson said.

Hudson said that he believes the Nexe Pod is thriving because of its convenience when it comes to recycling, and that even if the product ends up in a landfill, “it’s not going to be any worse than a regular plastic pod.”

“All of the regular plastic pods are going to landfill anyway,” he said. “The recycling rate is less than one per cent.”

“We are looking to displace all kinds of single-use plastics,” Hudson said. “Coffee is really just the first sort of target market that we have.”

Zachary Hudson shares his thoughts on bioplastics and waste management in the video below.

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