The Tale of the Missing Tracker
- The results of our quest to verify Nespresso’s claims that it recycles used aluminium coffee capsules unwittingly led us to a potential exposè of a staggering environmental gaffe likely involving certain individuals linked to a waste company
- Nespresso could to be on the right track with its sustainability strategy save for credibility issues around its waste recycling programme, and one reluctant big name green partner, IUCN
- The CEO of Nespresso’s local distributor, Steward Beric Brown, pleads ignorant on how one of our test batches destined for a recycling plant in Johannesburg landed on a fishing trawler. Surprisingly the tracker Brown returned to uSpiked turns out to be the one that had spent time on a sea vessel. So where is our other tracker, shredded by Nespresso’s separation machine, resting at some landfills or being analysed at Nestlè’s computer lab? We do not know and Nespresso is not talking to us anymore
The jury is still out on the credibility of Nespresso’s coffee capsules recycling scheme. Our umpiring duty led us to even bigger questions, including how much of Cape Town’s waste matter is dumped at sea and what do operators of fishing vessels get for the rides with rubbish.
When we placed our trackers into the ‘completely recyclable’ Nespresso issued bags, we never expected any to be tracked to a fishing vessel, but it did. The second one took the nearly 1,400kms road trip to Johannesburg, hopefully to the recycling plant.
One reason the tracker was in a fishing boat could have been on a journey for disposal at sea - an environmental crime of epic proportions. Regardless, our initial investigation was to verify the credibility of the recycling claim and if proven otherwise, to try and understand how this multibillion dollars Swiss food and beverage company has managed to fool everyone.
To get answers, we approached another Swiss headquartered entity, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an organisation Nespresso prominently mentions in its recycling strategy. We asked IUCN if it had any audit in place to ensure that consumers are not defrauded. Media and communication manager, Ewa Magiera, responded; “With regards to Nespresso claims around their collection rate of used capsules, we have never knowingly endorsed their claims. We would therefore be grateful if you could point us to where this endorsement has been published.”
Nespresso’s sustainability website, Ecolaboration, lists IUCN as a recycling partner. If that is not an endorsement however indirect, then we are baffled. We did provide additional information to which Magiera reaffirmed; “The issue you raised is of great concern to us and we would greatly appreciate it if you could give us more information about it. As we mentioned, before, IUCN has never endorsed Nespresso’s recycling claims.”
We shared bits of data we had collected during our investigation with IUCN. Magiera has not responded since.
As we were engaging with IUCN, we were also seeking an explanation from Nespresso’s local representatives, Top Vending (Pty) Ltd.
After several attempts, we got Natasha Rugnat who is Nespresso’s CRC Manager. Asked why used capsules meant to reach a recycling plant in Johannesburg were in a fishing boat in Cape Town, Rugnat demanded proof. We emailed screenshots of historical data recorded of tracker T05A that showed the package in various places but the claimed recycling plant. She emailed within two hours; “I have subsequently referred this matter to our legal team who are trying to make contact with you, but to no avail.”
There had been no missed calls on our side, so we questioned her claim. Keen to have the last word, Rugnat wrote; “When we attempt calling your number, it does not ring, so therefore no missed call will appear on your phone.” They wanted to talk to us but could not wait for it to ring. Tsk tsk.
Five days later, we enquired of the status of the promised response from Rugnat. This time her call to the same previously unreachable number came through with information that their head of legal would get in touch with us. She followed the call with an email stating; “Our Head of Legal, Mr. Kevin Mulligan will be in touch with you.”
Why head of legal? Could this be Nestlè’s modus operandi – profits should be paramount, if caught spare no budget in shutting down everyone.
If roping in Mulligan to respond to a media query was intended to intimidate us, then he must have missed the lecture on how to freak your perceived opponents in law school – if there is any such. In his convoluted response, this head of legal unconsciously provided more details than we had expected.
He commenced with; “Thank you for your email about testing our recycling collection system.” We were not testing the recycling collection system, but the entire recycling claim.
He then proceeded to outline for us how their collection process really works, or rather how it is meant to work. “Used capsules placed in the recycling bin at the V&A boutique are removed daily from the bin and placed in a box which is sealed before it is taken to the boutique's own storage facility. This occurs under supervision of a manager. The sealed boxes are kept there under lock and key pending collection by our courier for transport to the Oricol recycling plant in Johannesburg. The collection by the courier also occurs under supervision of a manager. The managers are the only employees who have keys to the storage facility.”
After explaining two other points including how their contracted courier company collects them once or twice a week, Mulligan blamed us for the capsules that ended up at sea; “…We are therefore unable to say how the bag that you say you placed in the recycling bin on 21 April 2015 might have found its way onto a fishing trawler in the harbour on that day.”
Any Nespresso consumer who has returned used capsules to their Boutique (shop) at the V&A Waterfront would know that the said bin is located right behind the counter mainly accessible to staff.
In this particular instance, the bag was handed to an employee of Nespresso, and there are audio/visual recordings of the exchanges to back that up.
Secondly, how could Mulligan have known that the capsules ended up in a fishing trawler? In our email that provided the proof, we had only mentioned a ‘fishing boat’ but by then we already had details of the vessels on which the capsules and our tracker had been moved to – and it was indeed a trawler.
It’s clear that Mulligan’s investigation had been quite thorough to know that ‘we had got it wrong’ in our email – trawler not a boat. He however did not disclose to us the full discovery of his investigation. He was daring us and we called his bluff. Our technology could have been simple, but we knew it could not lie.
In his attempts to justify the company’s dedication to preserving the environment, Mulligan disclosed; “Capsules placed in the bin between 15 April 2015 and 22 April 2015 filled twelve boxes that were collected by our courier on 23 April 2015 and transported to Oricol (Environmental Services). The relevant waybill, a copy of which is attached for your information, confirms that Oricol received these boxes on 28 April 2015.”
The said waybill provided total weight of 400kgs with dimensions of 40x40x55cm for eleven of the twelve boxes and the last one being 40x40x38cm. [the importance of this would become apparent in due course -editor]
Once or twice a week - that would be a lot of capsules if the 400kgs weight indicated in the waybill is to be believed. During preliminary stages of our investigation, we had established that Nestlè had developed a machine capable of separating the capsules from the usually wet or moist used coffee grounds.
However, the returned capsules still had to be emptied from the bags by some human hands and must be dried before being thrust into the said machine. This is what had encouraged us to place our sealed prepaid courier bag containing our devices among the used capsules – they would not have missed it at the recycling plant.
Just in case there were no such separation machines, we needed to know what it would take to manually separate the two.
It took three uSpiked’s staff a total of thirty-two minutes to separate used coffee grounds from their respective 126 capsules. Simply put, an adult employee of the recycling plant would accomplish the same task in about an hour and a half (96 minutes).
Hence, supposing the details provided in the waybill are correct, 400kgs of used capsules per week per shop - about 28,000 used capsules - would require about 21,300 minutes (355 hours) to separate. That further works out to forty-four work-days of eight hours each.
Nespresso has at least four shops in South Africa - V&A Waterfront, Canal Walk, Hyde Park and Sandton. If each turns out 400kgs of used capsules a week, it is quite mathematically easy to work out how many workers (permanent or temporary) the recycling plant would have needed just to handle the Nespresso’s job. But there is some machine claimed to be able to do the work.
Nestlè is of course not in the business of making losses. How much exactly does the recycling cost them? We have been unable to find any declaration of the expenses associated with the scheme in their published financials. But being multinational, the declaration could be slotted in any other country’s books.
As we were finalising this report, we got an email from Mulligan requesting if uSpiked could meet with their chief executive, Stewart Brown.
Before responding, we conducted a brief check and established that Stewart Beric Brown was not from Nestlè, but was in fact a director of Top Vending (Pty) Ltd, Nespresso’s official agents in South Africa.
We further reminded Mulligan that as much as we were not questioning their claimed collection procedures, the main explanation we needed was how our randomly placed tracker ended up at sea.
Indicative of how seriously the company was taking the case of possible swimming capsules, Brown and his marketing executive, Lila Jutzen, took us through the collection system at their V&A Waterfront Boutique. They both agreed that if the system in place were followed correctly, there would be no reason for the capsules that had accompanied tracker T05A to be on a fishing vessel.
“We are all baffled at how this could have happened,” he said. “We at Nespresso are all very proud of the scheme.” A seemingly at pains Brown told us. Jutzen echoed same sentiments. Could it have been an unintended once-off human error?
We also noted that the boxes that they were showing as those usually used to pack and courier the returned capsules were indeed much larger than those indicated on the waybill. This slight discrepancy can however be explained, as packaging material could vary every now and then.
Towards the end of our meeting, Brown ‘fished’ from his bag, a tracker and handed it to us. A scan of its QR-Code confirmed that it was one of ours. The impression created was that it was the T02A that we had tracked from Canal Walk to Johannesburg. We did not at that time ask why it wasn’t contained in its sealed prepaid courier bag. All we had hoped for was that its internal data remained intact. We were also glad to have got it back.
All that however changed soon after the returned device was plugged into our main system. It turned out to be the same device that had been on board a fishing trawler. How did Nespresso people get it back from the trawler and was Brown aware of this fact? How much do they know of the trawlers’ involvement with possible waste disposal at the Waterfront? Did Mulligan and his team simply use the proof we had emailed them to know from where to retrieve it? And where is the T02A that was delivered by courier from Canal Walk to Johannesburg?
Could we assume that the weeklong investigation by Mulligan included someone going through the trash on board the fishing vessel to retrieve the incriminating T05A? We wanted these questions answered so we contacted Brown again. It was also important to understand how he got to be in possession of the device; from whom did he receive it?
Calls to his cellphone went unanswered while repeated calls to his office yielded no results. Despite voice mail and a text message left on his cellphone, Brown had not reverted to us by the time of publication.
In the meantime we managed to get Jutzen to answer when exactly Brown received the T05A. According to information that she had sought from her colleagues, the device, our official letter (addressed to the Recycling Plant Manager) explaining our assignment, and the prepaid self-address courier bag) were received at their offices in Bromhof on May 15 – two weeks after we raised the issue of the missing tracker with them.
She added that the package had been received from “our partner Oricol for Mr. Brown’s attention.”
Based on information provided during our meeting that the separations of the capsules are done at the plant every week, we asked her to provide confirmation on when exactly the items arrived at the plant. We are still waiting for that response. This was also contradicted by a statement that the invitation that was being extended to us to visit the recycling plant was based on our letter to Kevin (Mulligan). That request was never made to Mulligan (via any email) - further linking him to the recovered T05A.
Could vital information have been withheld from this chief executive? With directorships in at least fourteen companies, could Brown, who turned fifty last month, been just too busy to keep his eyes on the Nespresso ball? Also now of concern is his multiple identities recorded with Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC). In this state agency system, Stewart Beric Brown is recorded to have used at least three varying ID numbers to register his multiple companies. If it is the state agency’s internal error, has Brown made any effort to rectify the same? We would ask him all this if could revert to us.
Due to these new developments, we believe we have blown any chances of ever getting the promised tonnage of aluminium recovered so far from the recycling of the capsules. During our meeting, we had informed Brown of our need to know the average aluminium turnover from the returned capsules and possibly what it has been turned into.
Given our findings, we can now authoritatively declare the claimed recycling as highly suspect.
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