6 November 2019
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Large consumer companies are increasingly focusing on reworking their consumable products to be more environmentally friendly. Until recently, consumables were often produced on an industrial scale with little consideration given to disposal of the used product. But consumers are increasingly making commercial decisions based on the environmental impact of a product and the green credentials of the company selling it. One consumable product that is undergoing significant development in response to changing demands is the coffee capsule. Over 56 billion coffee capsules were disposed of in landfills worldwide in 2018. Very few were recycled.

In an ideal world, consumers would be able to immediately place used coffee capsules in their recycling waste to degrade. But developing compostable coffee capsules is difficult. A number of rigorous physical demands are placed on the capsule. When inside a coffee machine it must be able to withstand perforation, high pressure and exposure to water at high temperature. Outside the coffee machine it must also be able to store the coffee for long periods and remain intact after use for easy disposal. Most compostable materials do not readily meet these demands.

Despite these challenges, Lavazza has stepped forward as the first major coffee company to release a fully compostable coffee capsule. Compostable products are more than just biodegradable. Not only does a compostable material break down under natural processes like a biodegradable material, but it does so in a relatively short amount of time to give only non-toxic products such as water, carbon dioxide and biomass. To be certified as ‘compostable’ the entire product must break down under the conditions of industrial composting facilities within 180 days. As reported in numerous media outlets this week (e.g. here and here), Lavazza are pledging to replace their entire range of domestic coffee capsules with new eco-friendly equivalents by the end of the year.

Coffee capsules, rather than coffee machines, are the main source of profit in the coffee industry. The global coffee capsule market is predicted to be worth over $29 billion a year by 2025 compared to around $0.4 billion a year for the corresponding coffee machines. In view of this disparity, the coffee machines are often sold for minimal profit, or even at a loss, to increase the size of the much larger coffee capsule market. But once consumers own a coffee machine they can be subject to vendor lock-in whereby they can only use compatible coffee capsules sold by the same company. This is because crucial features of the coffee machine, coffee capsule and their interactions are often protected by patents and other intellectual property rights. These companies are acutely aware that intellectual property is a powerful way to protect their market position and so they enthusiastically pursue and enforce their IP portfolios.

The new Eco Caps coffee capsules are no different, and Lavazza is building up a portfolio of patents to protect their investment in this new technology. Lavazza has been publicly active in the green coffee capsule market since 2015 when they first announced a biodegradable and compostable coffee capsule made from a biopolymer derived from thistles. The delay in rolling out their compostable technology to their entire product range is likely because time was needed to perfect the user experience so that consumers do not notice a difference compared to the old materials.

Some of the problems that Lavazza potentially faced during development of their compostable capsule technology is revealed in their patents. For instance, it seems that oxygen and moisture spoilage of the coffee granules may have been a problem and so patent EP3507215B proposes a suitable barrier layer formed between inner and outer compostable layers. The perforability of a compostable bottom wall of a coffee capsule, so that it functions properly when perforated, is dealt with by patent EP3265404B. And problems with composting time are addressed in pending application EP3237306A by providing a coffee capsule that allows used coffee granules to exit the capsule early in the composting process so that composting of the capsule structure itself is accelerated.

But Lavazza are operating in a highly competitive area. Disposable coffee capsules have a bad image and other major manufacturers are seeking green alternatives as well. The first companies to move into this IP space are likely to obtain relatively broad protection that could provide them with a significant commercial advantage. Unsurprisingly, this has led others to challenge Lavazza’s recent patents in this area. For example, the above patent focusing on perforability is being opposed by both Nestle and Bisio Progetti. With such a large market advantage at stake, we will doubtless see further battles played out over patents in this new area.

With a strong background in organic, biological and medicinal chemistry, Andrew works mostly on European Patent Office prosecution and opposition cases relating to the chemistry and materials sectors. Andrew has an MSci (Hons.) degree in medical and biological chemistry from the University of Nottingham, with his penultimate undergraduate year spent working with AstraZeneca in Sweden. He also has a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Cambridge, where his research focused on C–H functionalisation and natural product synthesis.

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