Sustainability Researcher Komal Kooduvalli is an avid coffee drinker. She knows all too well that single-service coffee machines are a rapid and convenient mechanism for preparing coffee and that the tiny disposable pods are easily discarded and create insurmountable waste in landfills. As Research Supervisor I at UTK/ORNL in March 2018, Komal visited the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s composting site that collects landscaping and dining waste throughout campus daily that produces nutrient-rich compost for campus gardens and farms. Seeing the composting process in-person inspired

Komal to set out and measure the degradation rates of some of the bio-composites that are produced through various manufacturing routes, including a few used BPI certified compostable coffee pods to see how long they would take to break down.

The result? Complete degradation of compostable coffee pods within 46 days. And now, after two years of meticulous fieldwork, analysis, literature review, data collection, modeling and comparative analysis, life cycle assessment and testing, Komal and her team’s research on compostable coffee pods is getting attention. On June 8, the leading, international weekly journal Scientific Reports under Nature research group published an article about the research titled the “Life Cycle Assessment of Compostable Coffee Pods: A US University Based Case Study.”

According to the article, for reasons relating to convenience, time, and sanitation, many people choose to use disposable coffee pods nowadays. While most pods are made from synthetic, non-compostable plastics, companies are now beginning to produce compostable, bioderived plastics. These compostable pods can be sent to industrial composting facilities with the coffee grounds intact, providing convenience for consumers compared to conventional pods while diverting waste from landfills.

Komal, with the help of IACMI Chief Technology Officer Uday Vaidya, ORNL Senior R&D Scientist Soydan Ozcan, and various teammates and colleagues, explored several environmental impacts (11 impacts including embodied energy) of such coffee pods compared to conventional ones along their supply chain. Ultimately, the compostable pods proved to be least impactful compared to the plastic pods while including a viable industrial-scale composting site at the end of its life (EOL).

“Ultimately, I would like to see decisions made and in turn institutional change driven by such self-assessed life cycle assessments,” said Komal. “Especially in industries wherein composting for biobased composites and/or products may be incorporated to create a truly circular pathway for such material flows.”

See Komal and her composite sustainability project in action with IACMI interns here.

About IACMI-The Composites Institute

The Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI), managed by the Collaborative Composite Solutions Corporation (CCS), is a partnership of industry, universities, national laboratories, and federal, state and local governments working together to benefit the nation’s energy and economic security by sharing existing resources and co-investing to accelerate innovative research and development in the advanced composites field. CCS is a not-for-profit organization established by The University of Tennessee Research Foundation. The national Manufacturing USA institute is supported by a $70 million commitment from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, and over $180 million committed from IACMI’s partners. Find out more at IACMI.org.