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The recycling of disposable coffee capsules: myth or reality?

After a massive surge of ecological consciousness in the past decade, single-use coffee capsules have come under the spotlight for their negative environmental impact. Indeed, according to a research done by Halo, every minute about 39,000 capsules are made worldwide, while 29,000 are dumped in landfill sites. This is equivalent to around 20 billion capsules produced each year and 15 billion capsules thrown away in nature.

While most brands have not done much about it until now (i.e the brands producing plastic pods, for obvious reasons), one has decided to (or was forced to?) put in place an ambitious recycling programs: Nespresso.
But what is really being done in terms of recycling? This is what we will analyse in this blog post.


Nespresso: introduction and opening to competition

In 1976, Eric Favre, an employee of Nestlé, invented, patented and introduced the Nespresso system to the business market in Switzerland. Nespresso first tested its new concept in Japan in 1986, and rolled it out to consumers in Switzerland, France, Italy and Japan the same year. Starting out as an e-commerce business, Nespresso only opened their first boutique in Paris in 2000 as a concept store. Today, Nespresso has a global network of more than 700 boutiques in 67 countries.The first patent application for Nespresso's process of brewing espresso from capsules containing ground coffee was filed in 1996.

In 2010, the concept (machine, capsule, service) was still subject to 1,700 patents which protected Nespresso's ownership of the concept until they expire. This led to comparisons of Nespresso with printer manufacturers that hinder the sale of generic ink cartridges, to achieve a vendor lock-in effect. Nespresso's patents began to expire in 2012, gradually allowing competitors to offer capsules and machines compatible with the Nespresso system. Many brands have since then come up with their own Nespresso-compatible pods. If you go to a supermarket today, this is what you will see:


Impressive uh? But a disaster for our planet. Although Nestlé is trying hard to convince people that it does care by putting in place its recycling program, one has to face the truth: most nespresso-compatible pods sold today are not even produced by Nespresso. And none of those brands has a recycling program. Even worse: many of those brands have capsules made of plastic and not aluminium, which will cause even more harm to the environment.

So the issue is pretty bad, and Nespresso, who unleashed - against his will - a monster it cannot control anymore since 2012, has started a recycling program, notably in a way to differentiate itself from its competitors, the other providers of Nespresso-compatible pods.


Nespresso’s recycling programme

Nespresso has put in place a recycling programme for its aluminium Nespresso and Vertuoline capsules in 44 countries. Indeed, Aluminium is an infinitely recyclable materials, so why not recycle it?

But how efficient is this recycling programme?

Please note all the figures in this section were made available by Nespresso themselves here.

 

The way it works

Out of the 44 countries enrolled in the program, consumers can dispose of the capsules in their recycling bins in 6 of them. In 15 countries they can ship them off back to Nespresso through the postal system for free. For the 23 other countries, there are 122 287 collection points worldwide where you can drop off the used capsules.

There is no need to empty or wash out the capsules, you just throw them as is. Not bad… Unless you live in one of the 23 countries where you need to leave the capsules at a collection point and they’re not very close to where you live.

As you can see from the map indicating collection points in Mexico (which is a huge country), you will likely struggle to get to your collection point if you are from the north of the country (not even talking about Baja California Sur). So already here, there is a technical issue in the program, but let’s analyse in depth what is at stake here.


Some figures: how much is really being recycled?

As you can see in this report, Nespresso focuses on its potential capacity to recycle, which is 86% worldwide, but what are the actual recycling numbers exactly?

In 2016, the “valorisation” of their used capsules was 56%. This means that 44% of their capsules ended up in landfills. Of the collected capsules, some are used as fuel in electricity generation, and only 24.6% were actually recycled. The first component, coffee, is used to produce heat, biogas and compost. 

(Allow us a small parenthesis here to stress something that is important: the recycling of the capsules needs a special recycling facility as they are filled with… coffee! The capsules cannot be melted and recycled if there is even a tiny trace of coffee left in them. This makes the whole process more complicated, costly, and therefore wasteful in energy!) 

And then the other component, the aluminium, is used in other projects. You read that well: other projects.

So to put it this way: the number of Nespresso capsules that are made of aluminium recycled from other used capsules is virtually nonexistentSince they started testing the feasibility of a capsule-to-capsule approach in 2015 they’ve produced 10 million capsules, so only 0.1% of the capsules they produced the same year.
But it is actually worse than that: Nespresso does not use recycled aluminium at all to make its capsules, because as they claim, their capsules require a “specific alloy of aluminium”—alloy 8011 that is not found in recycled aluminium. Thus, most of their aluminium comes from virgin material. And while recycled aluminium is easy to recycle, ore extraction is highly energy intensive, wasting incredible amounts of water, electricity and resources. Nespresso has understood the extent of the problem, and therefore has made a pledge towards sustainable aluminium sourcing. But for now, the use of virgin aluminium still uses 95% more energy than recycling it. 


To conclude on the recycling program, despite the company’s efforts, almost half the capsules sold keep ending up in landfills due to gaps in Nespresso's collection system. On top of that, the single-use approach is still making use of invaluable energy and resources which could be avoided. While theoretically speaking, the system could become efficient on paper, this would take decades to implement and would also rely upon the proactivity of its consumers. Yeah, we are really not there yet…


Conclusion

So the overall conclusion here is that so far, even if they try to make an effort, the recycling program of Nespresso looks a lot like an attempt to improve its Public Relations or a way to differentiate itself from its competitors rather than something that will have a sustainable and strong impact on the harm caused by the pollution of single-use capsules. Much more will be needed from Nestlé for us to have a different conclusion. What is more, even if they succeed, which we wish they will, the nespresso model has grown beyond Nestlé: therefore, shouldn’t a global recycling program concerning all the different brands be put in place? Finally, while recycling capsules is a preferred solution compared to simply throwing them in landfills, it remains a costly and wasteful process. This is why we decided to promote our infinitely reusable capsule, the Evergreen™ capsule. Like we love to say: 

“You will never have to throw a capsule again”