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Care for anything else with your coffee? Some cream? Or maybe a heaping mountain of waste? Individual coffee capsules were first released by Nespresso in 1986 – and they completely changed the way we drink coffee. “They were a big hit,” says Professor Sylvain Allard, who specialises in packaging at the School of Design at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). “In just a few years, Nespresso and other companies, such as Keurig in the US, were able to offer high-quality coffee to a much larger group of consumers worldwide. It was a stroke of marketing genius. But the success of coffee capsules comes at a hefty cost: their environmental impact is catastrophic.”
According to France 2, over nine billion aluminium capsules are sold worldwide each year. That’s nearly 40,000 tonnes of aluminium – or four Eiffel Towers! “It’s absurd,” says Sylvain Allard, whose feelings are shared by most independent experts. “In today’s world we’re trying so hard to reduce the amount of packaging we use – but these companies are producing packaging for every single cup of coffee!”
But Nestlé has heard it all before. In response, the company underscores its environmental policy: “We use aluminium for our capsules because it’s the best material for protecting the freshness, taste and quality of our coffee products,” says Fridolin Landolt, Market Operations manager at Nespresso. “But it’s also a material that can be recycled over and over again. The aluminium from used capsules is recycled and reused. And we are always trying to get more and more of our customers to participate in our recycling programme. In doing so, we are stepping up our contribution to the circular economy.”
In Switzerland, for instance, the company collects used capsules at 2,700 collection points throughout the country. The capsules are sent to a factory operated by Barec in Moudon (canton of Vaud), where the aluminium and coffee grounds are separated. The metal is then sent to foundries in neighbouring countries, where it is melted down and used to make other products, such as bicycle frames and car parts. The coffee grounds are sent to a biogas plant in Henniez (Vaud), where they are transformed into biogas and then electricity. Lastly, the digestate – a by-product of biogas – is spread on the surrounding fields.
“Nespresso supports and promotes the recycling of both aluminium and coffee grounds to improve its environmental performance,” says Landolt. But Sylvain Allard remains sceptical: “They’re making an effort to recycle, which is admirable. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. In reality, most people don’t bring in their capsules. The majority end up in the bin and are not recycled.” According to figures provided by Nespresso, half of all capsules sold in Switzerland are recycled. That figure is much less in other countries though (the Swiss company has remained somewhat vague on this point). While Nespresso capsules are sold in 62 countries worldwide, only 39 of those countries have a dedicated recycling system.
In 2016, Hamburg banned coffee capsules from its administration
But are capsules really better for the environment than filter coffee machines and Italian moka pots? “The Nespresso system optimises the amount of water, coffee and energy needed to make each cup,” says Fridolin Landolt. “It makes efficient use of resources.”
The firm Quantis was hired by Nespresso to analyse the impact of several different coffee-preparation methods. The study – published in November 2017 – estimates that coffee cultivation and preparation have a bigger impact on the environment than packaging. Quantis concluded that capsules are the most eco-friendly choice, because too much coffee is often dosed when using filters. It’s not the first time Nespresso has teamed up with Quantis. The Nestlé subsidiary also commissioned a report from the company in 2011 – the conclusions were the same.
“I don’t think too much coffee is dosed using a moka pot,” says Allard. “And let’s be serious, any system that generates packaging on an industrial scale is not a step in the right direction.” That’s also the opinion in Hamburg. In 2016, Germany’s second biggest city banned coffee capsules and plastic bottles from its administration, saying they produce too much waste.
The answer to such a dilemma may just lie in an alternative option. Since 2015, the Italian coffee roaster Lavazza has been selling compostable and biodegradable capsules, the Zurich firm Mycoffeestar has been selling refillable stainless-steel capsules (which are compatible with Nespresso machines), and many small companies have been offering biodegradable models, such as Carasso in Geneva. For now, the global market is dominated by the aluminium products of Nestlé, the only listed company in the sector…followed closely by the Dutch company Jacobs Douwe Egberts, which offers capsules in aluminium or plastic depending on the brand (Senseo, Tassimo, L’OR, Keurig).