Raising the barista

Written by: David Burrows | Published:

The popularity of in-home coffee machines means something must be done about all the capsules they get through. Big brand Nespresso’s recycling schemes have their doubters, while compostable versions are far from perfect too. David Burrows reports

First it was plastic bags. Then the attention turned to paper cups.

But the latest pin-up for our throwaway society seems to be aluminium and plastic coffee capsules. According to recent estimates, about 39,000 of them are produced every minute, up to 29,000 of which end up in landfill. That’s
20-odd billion capsules a year and an “environmental crisis”, according to some.

Indeed, you don’t have to look far to find a negative story – and more often than not the brand attracting the headlines is Nestlé’s Nespresso. It’s the market leader in single-serve coffee machines and – thanks to its stellar ambassador George Clooney – has helped develop a £13.9 billion market in Western Europe alone. In the UK, one in three households now has a machine, and another two in 10 would like one. It’s easy to see why: the technology provides the convenience of instant with a decent cup of coffee.

But each time a ‘barista-style’ brew bubbles from the front, a small capsule containing the spent grains has to be collected from the back. Experts at market research firm Mintel reckon sales of these capsules will hit £373 million in the UK by 2020, so should we start worrying about where all the waste ends up?

David Newman, MD at the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA), is keen to play down some of the scaremongering – “we’re not facing an emergency here” – but understands why the spotlight has been turned on this particular waste stream.

“What we are seeing with coffee pods is a disturbing example of the linear, throw-away, mono-use society which many of us would like to see become circular,” he explains. “They will always need to be disposed of in one way or the other, [but] it is difficult to think we can reuse a coffee pod or even recycle it.”

Some are trying, though. Nespresso has run its own recycling scheme in the UK for seven years (in other countries there have been collections available for 25 years). However, despite ploughing 25 million Swiss francs (£20 million) into the initiative every year, it has struggled to accurately measure
the recycling rate.

“It’s greenwash,” says Mark Hilton, resource efficiency lead at Eunomia, and is “designed to deflect attention from what might be down the road in terms of regulation”. (It was a similar situation with single-use cups, he adds: “When people kicked up a fuss the industry said it would set up a scheme.”)

But last month Nespresso finally published a figure – “56% of our used capsules are valorised”, it noted in its sustainability report, The positive cup – because coffee can have a positive impact. Revalorised, for those not familiar with the phrase, means “used to create value after consumption” – in other words, they are recycled or sent to an energy from waste plant.

There is further detail in the report, which splits the 56% as follows: 24% of used capsules are recycled – either through Nespresso’s scheme or those run by local authorities – while 32% ends up in energy recovery facilities, some with recovery of the aluminium and some without. Hilton suggests the figures should be taken with a pinch of salt.

“Aluminium doesn’t burn during incineration as such, but its surface oxidises partly, releasing a quantity of energy (31.6 MJ/kg),” he explains. “The small amount of plastic film on either side of the aluminium will also burn, releasing energy. But most of the aluminium (around 50% of cans and trays and up to 90% of aerosols) carries through to the bottom ash, mostly as fine particles as the aluminium melts. So whether this is at all ‘good’ depends on what happens to this bottom ash.”

Energy-intensive material

Currently, only a small part of the ash is likely to be recovered given that it takes sophisticated and expensive sorting technology. And let’s not forget, Hilton adds, that whichever way you look at it, EfW is a waste of an energy-intensive material that should be recycled to recover the majority of the embodied carbon. Then there is the 44% that will be mostly buried: aluminium can create a number of headaches for landfill operators – the generation of undesirable heat, liquid leachate and gases such as ammonia and hydrogen sulphide, for example.

Still, 24% is put to good use – and that’s perhaps higher than many had estimated. How much of this is down to Nespresso rather than local authorities is not clear, but the company is pushing for more national collection schemes.

In May, it launched a pilot with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea: residents can now put their used aluminium capsules (only Nespresso ones, mind) in purple bags that are then collected by Suez, which runs the council’s recycling scheme.

The capsules end up at a site in Congleton, Cheshire run by Tandom Metallurgical Group – the aluminium and spent grounds are separated; the former ends up back in the value chain “in a bike or a window frame”, while the latter is composted. It’s too early to say whether it is working, but “we definitely want to roll this out and replicate it around the world”, says Nespresso corporate communications manager Katherine Graham.

Getting a move on

Higher recycling targets would help speed things up, she adds. The UK government is considering new packaging recycling targets for aluminium, while in Europe the Circular Economy Package set the objective of recycling 75% of aluminium packaging by 2025 and 85% by 2030; MEPs now want these increased to 80% and 90% respectively.
“We were lobbying quietly behind the scenes for more ambitious recycling targets,” admits Graham, who wants to see “better sorting of materials”.

Germany is the “gold standard”, she continues, with people able to pop any recyclable material in their bin. In France, sorting centres that have begun taking smaller aluminium packaging – such as coffee capsules and Capri-Sun pouches – have also witnessed large increases in capture rates.

“The sorting centres that have made the investment in infrastructure [the addition of an overband and eddy current separator on the recycling reject streams] are recycling on average 57% more aluminium than before,” Graham says.

But is there the money (or policy) in the UK to encourage similar investment? If capsules are integrated into dry recycling schemes, it will be councils left to foot the bill, which is “unlikely to make sense, particularly under current financial constraints”, predicts Hilton at Eunomia.

Instead, he sees a clear role for producer responsibility – perhaps a “more refined” system that modulates producer fees according to the net impact of the broad packaging type (for example, composite polymers and contaminated materials) across the life-cycle. “We need a system that places the onus on producers to take responsibility for the whole life-cycle of their products, right from the outset,” he adds.

Rather than recycle more capsules, another option is to design ‘greener’ ones.

In recent weeks there has been a lot of hype around the first compostable capsules to hit the market. Made by Halo, the 100% natural blend of fibres including bamboo and paper are compatible with “any leading machine”. BBIA’s Newman says that in producing compostable pods “we are driving forward a bioeconomy of industrial growth that brings benefits to the UK as we can competitively produce these new materials here”.

Halo’s team took one-and-a-half years to design a capsule that is both resistant to the heat and pressure from the machine and breaks down within the time frames set out in EU laws for ‘compostable’ materials. But is the innovation really as “beautiful” as its co-founders have suggested?

“I’m sure that those creating biodegradable packaging are very well intentioned, and if you had asked me my opinion a decade ago, I would have said what a marvellous thing it was,” says the commercial director at a food waste recycling firm who prefers to remain anonymous. “However, actually finding a home for all biodegradable packaging presents a number of challenges that make many anaerobic digestion and composting operators nervous about taking them.”


For in-vessel composting there are two main issues. First, the water-resistant film on the capsules takes a few weeks to break down before the core of the product can be attacked by the composting process – and
that means it takes longer to secure the PAS100 standard. The bigger issue is messaging: it is hard to distinguish between compostable products and non-compostable ones, which is why many collectors have a blanket ban on packaging.

This issue of segregation is also prominent for collections destined for anaerobic digestion. Can the public decipher between the capsules? A look at contamination levels in kerbside collections of both dry and wet waste suggests they are already confused. Dedicated plants and infrastructure, as well as clearer labelling, would all help, but where will the money come from?

Hilton isn’t convinced compostable capsules are the way to go. “Ten years ago, the supermarkets all went for compostable plastics (made from polylactic acid – PLA), but everyone’s pretty much backed away due to the reality on the ground. It often happens,” he adds, “we have a difficult material to recycle, so everyone thinks ‘let’s make it compostable’.”

Another knee-jerk reaction is ‘let’s ban it’. In Hamburg, Germany, officials have already done just that, but there is little chance of a blanket ban on an industry now worth billions. So, much like an espresso after supper, this challenge is going to keep experts awake at night for some time to come.

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