The Consumer guide to coffee capsules and capsule waste.
If you're looking for the perfect café style espresso, coffee capsules could be your answer.
Coffee capsule machines don’t have a portafilter or require tamping. Instead they use pre-packaged coffee capsules. These capsules are hermetically sealed, giving them a long shelf life compared to beans or grind. When a capsule is inserted into the machine and extraction starts, the capsule is pierced and water is pumped through and then poured into the cup. The same process is used for milk capsules.
Capsule espresso machines work best with that brand’s capsule. This means choosing a machine that uses coffee capsules you like. Try out the flavours before you buy. Some stores offer taste tests or if you have friends with a capsule machine, invite yourself over for a coffee. Here’s our summary of the major brands available.
They have six capsule ranges available, including George Clooney’s favourite Decaffeinato Intenso. Each range comes in four or more strengths. They also have a Variations range that blend flavours such as caramel and vanilla with the coffee. Nespresso capsules are sold at five stores and online.
Nescafe Dolce Gusto
Nescafe have 11 flavours from macchiato to Americano, one tea flavour and two hot chocolates. Capsules are available in supermarkets and selected appliance retailers. For some flavours, Nescafe also include milk capsules (used like coffee capsules). However, this results in extra waste.
Sold in Countdown stores under the Select brand, these capsules come in four strengths – standard, medium roast, smooth and decaffeinated. Other businesses, such as Gloria Jean’s and Moccona, also produce Caffitaly capsules with their own grind blends.
No manufacturer recommends using third-party capsules in its machines, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work in them. “Compatible” capsules are readily available in supermarkets, but using them could potentially void your warranty. Your CGA rights would only be affected if they caused a fault.
There are compostable capsules on the market. There are also refillable coffee capsules you can prepare yourself – although this does take away from the convenience of a capsule machine.
Why is recycling used coffee capsules so difficult? Because they’re made of different materials that can vary from brand to brand. Some are entirely aluminium or plastic, while others are a mixture. None are marked with a plastic recycling number, which means they can’t be thrown out with your household recycling.
We emptied coffee capsules from three major brands and weighed them. Nespresso (aluminium) capsules weighed 1g on average, while Nescafe Dolce Gusto (aluminium and plastic) and Caffitaly (plastic) capsules were just over 3g each.
Most brands have their own programmes or support third-party companies in collecting and recycling capsules. TerraCycle collects Nescafe Dolce Gusto and L’OR capsules. Nespresso capsules can be returned to Nespresso for recycling. You can’t recycle Caffitaly capsules.
How many capsules have actually been recycled in New Zealand is uncertain.
Manufacturers, in choosing to use capsules to deliver coffee, are responsible for generating this waste and must take an active role in helping consumers recycle them.
Our 2018 survey of 94 capsule coffee drinkers found 58% recycled their capsules. However, 30% didn’t know they could recycle capsules.
Capsule espresso machines are convenient, but wasteful and expensive. Is there a way to cut costs and be kinder to the environment?
One of the biggest issues with capsule espresso machines is the waste they produce in the form of used capsules. The environment ultimately pays the price for our convenience. While there are schemes to recycle these capsules, could there be a better way? Reusable coffee capsules (sometimes also called pods) that you fill yourself cut down on the cost and waste, but they’re a compromise on convenience.
We trialled three reusable capsules to find how easy they were to use and if they can save you money.
You fill reusable capsules with espresso coffee grind you buy from your local roastery or supermarket, then pop them into your machine. Afterwards you’ll need to wash and refill them, ready for your next coffee. Beware, they’ll be hot straight out of the used capsule bin, so it’s best to enjoy your coffee before tackling cleaning.
You won’t find these capsules at your supermarket – you’ll need to hit the internet to order them. Make sure you buy one that’s compatible with your machine, which means checking it’ll work with the brand and model.
Reusable capsules give you more freedom than pre-packaged ones, as you can customise the blend and strength of your coffee.
It depends on how much you’re willing to pay for the reusable capsule. Pre-packaged capsules from Nespresso or a supermarket cost about 74¢ per coffee.
Using reusable coffee capsules can cost as little as 13¢ in coffee grind per capsule. This means drinking three coffees a day, the $40 iCafilas capsule in our trial would pay for itself in just over three weeks.
With reusable capsules there’s a trade-off in terms of convenience. If you invest in a few capsules and plan ahead when it comes to filling, then they can be convenient. However, there’ll inevitably be a time when you want a coffee and there isn’t a capsule ready.
Filling the capsules is a fiddly process. They’re small, the scoops are small, and the tampers are small. Add in sticker lids (also small), and it can become a real hassle. On the other hand, you have more control over the blend and strength of the grind, and you can rest easy knowing you’re not adding to landfill waste. They also mean each coffee is a lot cheaper than using pre-packaged capsules.
If you’ve bought a capsule espresso machine only to become disenchanted by the waste produced and ongoing cost, these reusable capsules are a great option.
One of the biggest names in the reusable coffee capsule game, iCafilas is a stainless-steel capsule. It has a rubber seal under the top rim and inside the capsule to ensure no pressure is lost during extraction. It comes with a brush, instructions and a scoop that can also be used to tamp down the coffee.
Super easy and only takes a few seconds. Using the scoop as a tamper also cuts down on hassle. However, removing the lid can be a bit tricky if you have short nails (try using the end of the scoop).
Worked just like a store-bought capsule.
A nice, full-bodied coffee, on par with pre-packaged capsules.
A breeze. The lid pops off, and after scooping the used grinds out you can either handwash or throw it in the dishwasher. This capsule will be hot after use, so let it cool down before cleaning.
$39.90 at intentionally.co.nz (excluding shipping)
This capsule isn’t 100 percent reusable. It has a stainless-steel body, but the lid is an aluminium sticker you throw away after use. This means there’s still waste and an ongoing cost to using these capsules. Included in our starter pack were 100 aluminium lids, a scoop (which can be used as a tamper) and a rubber fresh cover lid for the bottom of the capsule (so you can fill capsules ahead of time and keep the coffee fresh). You can buy either aluminium lids for coffee with a crema, or paper lids for both tea and coffee making.
While easy to fill and tamp, this was the fiddliest of all the capsules to seal. You need to place the seal sticker over the top of the capsule, but holding a coffee-filled capsule without spilling it isn’t easy. Pro tip, place it in the fresh cover to keep it stable while applying the sticker.
Worked just like a pre-packaged capsule.
Nice and strong. It’s comparable to store-bought capsules.
It was fairly easy to scoop the grinds out, but occasionally the sticker would break apart while being removed. This capsule is hot after use, so let it cool down before cleaning.
$34 at nzcoffeepods.nz (excluding shipping)
This capsule has a plastic body (BPA free) and a metal and plastic lid, with a mesh layer in the lid and bottom to prevent coffee grinds escaping. It doesn’t have a brand name but is a very common style of reusable capsule. It didn’t come with a scoop, tamper or brush – or even instructions!
With no instructions, I had to guess how best to fill it. Once I had it full of grinds, I felt like it needed tamping – but I had nothing to tamp with. You can’t sit this pod on the bench while filling as it has a protrusion at the bottom.
This capsule was terrible to use. It often fell right through the machine before I could close the handle, and it became stuck after brewing. To get it into the machine correctly, I found it needed to be oriented a certain way – definitely not as easy as a pre-packaged capsule.
Terrible, all my coffees using this capsule were weak and watery. I feel this was down to the lack of a tamper. I did later try filling and tamping this capsule with the SealPod scoop, and the quality of my coffee dramatically improved.
It was fairly easy to use as the lid easily pops off and it can be washed by hand. However, grounds could become stuck in the mesh filters at the bottom and top of the capsule, so a cleaning brush would have been useful.
$8.95 at intentionally.co.nz (excluding shipping)
Another stainless-steel capsule but, unlike the others, its top screws on, meaning you always have a good seal. The starter pack also comes with a stainless-steel tamper to compress the grounds, meaning a tastier coffee. It looks just like the ones used on standard espresso machines, only smaller. Another notable difference is that this capsule has a removable metal mesh filter, which sits inside the lid. This filter can be the difference between good and bad coffee, so don’t lose it (there’s no spare). There’s also a scoop and instructions (though the poor grammar makes it hard to follow).
This is the only capsule that came with a tamper (it’s an optional extra with some other capsules). It was easy to fill, tamp and seal, but the mesh filter would occasionally pop out, making it fiddly to get the lid on.
A breeze to brew. The capsule was a tight fit in our machine (Breville Nespresso Inissia BEC200XR) so, depending on what model you have, you might need some elbow grease.
Good taste, but not quite as good as the iCafilas capsule. We also tried this capsule without the filter and found the coffee too grainy.
When cleaning you have to be careful not to lose the mesh filter down the plug hole when you rinse it, and you’ll need the supplied cleaning brush to clean small grinds out of the holes in the lid. Keep in mind that it’s hot just after extraction, so let it cool before cleaning.
$50 at ecoshacknz.com (excluding shipping) or $35 without the tamper
Like the other plastic capsule, this one has a hinged lid. However, this capsule has a small tab to make opening slightly easier (especially if you don’t have long nails). There are filters built into the lid and the bottom of the capsule to stop grind getting in your drink. The pack came with 6 capsules, meaning you can dose a few days of coffee at once. It also comes with a scoop, but no instructions.
Easy to open and fill, and you can use the back of the scoop to tamp the grind.
My expectations weren’t high after the other plastic capsule we trialled, but this one worked well and was a good fit in our machine.
Decent taste, though the crema was thin.
This capsule was one of the most annoying to clean. It has plastic surrounding the filter, which resulted in small areas where grind gathered that were almost impossible to remove without careful cleaning with the supplied brush.
$9.99 on Trade Me (excluding shipping)
We will be trialling biodegradable capsules that claim to break down in your household compost. Keep an eye on this page for reviews.