Consumer Products

Nexe Innovations develops new compostable coffee pod using 3D printing

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Sustainable consumer product startup Nexe Innovations is launching a compostable plant-based coffee pod in the US and Canada.

The company has revealed that it’s been using 3D printing technology for prototyping purposes since its founding back in 2013, citing rapid design iterations, a lack of tooling, and vastly reduced material waste as key factors in the decision. Having now developed its second product eight years on, a compostable coffee pod compatible with Nespresso machines, the firm hopes to fulfill its vision of replacing single-use plastic products with environmentally-friendly counterparts.

The espresso blend found in the Nexe Pod comprises fair-trade coffee beans grown in Ethiopia, Peru, and Indonesia.

The compostable Nexe Pod is compatible with Nespresso machines. Photo via Nexe Innovations.
The compostable Nexe Pod is compatible with Nespresso machines. Photo via Nexe Innovations.

The problem with coffee pods

As convenient as they are, coffee capsules just aren’t all that great for the environment. According to coffee pod manufacturer Halo, approximately 59 billion coffee pods were manufactured in 2018, 56 billion of which are expected to end up in landfill sites. Since single-serve capsules tend to be made of either polymers or aluminum (or a mix of both), it’s not uncommon for them to take up to 500 years to decompose naturally.

To help combat this, Nestle and Jacobs Douwe Egberts launched a joint coffee pod recycling scheme in the UK back in April 2021 – Podback. The program aims to provide customers with a simple way to recycle their pods, with more than 6500 Podback drop-off points in local stores across the country. Manufacturers like Illy and Dualit are also doing their part with the introduction of recyclable and compostable pod products.

The Nexe Pod

As one of the latest challengers in the compostable arena, the Nexe Pod has reportedly undergone five years of science-backed testing. According to Nexe Innovations, an independent composting study showed that around 90% of its new coffee pods broke down within a month.

The reason this isn’t 100% is probably to do with the fact that they aren’t completely plant-based, as the Nexe Pod is actually made of a blend of polylactic acid (PLA) and bamboo fiber, along with several other compostable ingredients.

PLA is one of the most commonly used polymers in 3D printing, known for its ease of use and low cost. The material is indeed biodegradable but requires both high heat and a microbe-rich environment to break down. As these conditions aren’t that common in nature, an industrial composting plant will still need to be used to keep the Nexe Pods in the circular economy.

However, the material choice does lend itself quite well to FDM 3D printing, meaning Nexe Innovations is able to prototype novel pods to its heart’s content. The company has previously stated that bringing prototyping in-house with an FDM print farm has slashed lead times, significantly cut waste and emissions, and completely eliminated shipping costs from third-party manufacturers. When it comes to series production, Nexe Innovations still uses conventional manufacturing techniques such as injection molding and thermoforming due to their higher throughput potential.

Nexe has used 3D printing to prototype its products since 2013. Photo via Nexe Innovations.
Nexe has used 3D printing to prototype its products since 2013. Photo via Nexe Innovations.

The circular economy has been a hot topic in 3D printing as of late, with companies and research institutions touting sustainable manufacturing practices and reusable materials. In the academic sphere, researchers from the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing recently developed a sustainable new 3D printing material out of termite and boring insect refuse. By upcycling the powdered wood particles and feces left behind by the bugs, the scientists were able to formulate a unique circular economy feedstock, which could be binder jet 3D printed without any polymeric additives

Elsewhere, engineers at the Canadian McGill University and Ryerson University recently turned environmentally damaging wind turbine waste into a robust fiber-reinforced PLA 3D printing material.

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Featured image shows the compostable Nexe Pod. Photo via Nexe Innovations.