Nespresso’s Waste Lost in the System

The Waste War: Technology vs Big Money

Millions of such used coffee capsules are continuously dotting the planet, all in the name of quick and convenient coffee drinking. Nespresso claims they can fully recycle the aluminium capsules. Should we believe them?

In Brief

  • As the market and consumption of coffee capsules ad pods rise in South Africa, so are concerns about their long-term impact on the environment
  • Globally, their respective manufacturers claim to have some plan in place to make disposal more sustainable. Nevertheless, millions of them are ending up in landfills
  • Nespresso South Africa boasts a sophisticated aluminium coffee capsules recycling programme under its sustainability platform that allows consumers to drop off used capsules at four shops
  • Employing simple tracking technology, uSpiked team set out to test Nespresso’s recycling claim and got mixed results; Nespresso could actually be living up to its recycling commitment, but we are puzzled - one of our test batches ended up on a fishing trawler at a secure operational area under the control of one of South Africa’s largest deep sea fishing companies 

Late last year uSpiked was asked to referee a debate on Nespresso’s claimed recycling of its aluminium coffee capsules. The points of the debate were; Can the programme by the Swiss food and beverage company gain traction in South Africa or anywhere else for that matter? Can Nespresso stand by the claims on its sustainability website that it has done everything responsibly “from the cherry to the cup”?

The challenge was too good to pass despite the irony before us – the debaters were all having a “Nespresso moment”, drinking coffee from the single serve capsules.

Many of us love the morning coffee fix to kick-start our day. The ‘coffee culture’, according to market research firm Euromonitor, is growing in South Africa. Of relevance is the number of affluent consumers that are increasingly seeking that “high coffee shop” coffee in the comfort of their own homes. A recent (Feb 2015) market report by the firm noted the rising popularity of the single-serve coffee capsules, and the lucrative opportunity it presents manufacturers targeting the niche. These consumers, says the report, will increasingly need “quality” and “convenience”.

But at what cost to our environment? How many consumers pause to consider what happens to the billions of capsules (plastic or aluminium) that are annually ejected from machines across the world? How many would bother to drop off their used capsules for recycling if there was a chance?

Nepresso says (and in such flowery language) on its website that it is “committed” when it comes to carbon emissions and sustainability. Our debaters started off praising Ecolaboration, the company’s sustainability platform, which gives locations where consumers can drop off used capsules for recycling. ‘Every company should have some recycling scheme in place for their packaging…’ one said. The praises were probably more due to the brand’s association with George Clooney, a renowned actor, activist and humanitarian campaigning against atrocities in Darfur, Sudan. However, the enthusiasm ebbed when somebody mentioned two things; Clooney ditched the coffee maker for a competitor and that Nespresso’s parent company is Nestlè.

Why would the mention of the multi-billion dollar corporation be so repulsive? Perhaps because it brings memories of reports such as Bottled Life – The Truth About Nestlè’s Business With Water and The Guardian’s, Milking it .

So, would you trust Nespresso’s recycling claim? The suddenly skeptical debaters allowed us time to check the credibility of the much-publicised claim.

Nestlé’s Recycling Scheme:

Before going into the scheme, it must be noted that our investigation was not about which is the best single serve coffee brewing machine there is, but about the ‘The Cycle of the Nespresso Capsules’, as claimed by the company. Unlike the John Sylvan’s plastic capsules invention, Nestlè’s capsules are aluminium-based.

In its promotional brochure that seemingly implies an endorsement by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Nestlé states: “All components of the Nespresso capsule are recyclable: not only the aluminium, but also the coffee grounds. These two components are separated before being processed. After separation, coffee grounds can be upgraded in a number of ways. They can be used, for example, as a natural fertilizer for agriculture or as an energy source for domestic heating.”

The company further claims that the process of recycling aluminium involves simple re-melting, which requires very little energy.

The thinking that little energy would be required for ‘re-melting’ of aluminium is in itself suspect. With a high melting point of 660.3 0C (and consider the importation of raw ore into South Africa for smelting and subsequent exportation as aluminium – the result of a perplexing agreement between Eskom and some mining houses), how less energy-intensive would remelting the capsules be?

Nespresso has further not provided any evidence of end products that have been produced from the recycled aluminium capsules. They have merely shown pictures of other aluminium products that could be produced from the ‘remelted’ capsules.

What we found

It would have been easier to call up Nestlè’s people in South Africa or in Vevey, Switzerland for answers, but we opted for a provable scientific authentication process.

We commissioned a modification and enhancement of multichannel-and-multi-band nano tracking chips. The required modification was mainly to improve on signal strength, accuracy and battery life. The final product was a tracking chip weighing 26grams, with GPS (L-Band Satellite), GPRS/3G, GSM and RFID capabilities, and a week-long battery life.

Before employing the gadgets to the task at hand, we took them on road tests across the country in early April. We could monitor, in real time, their locations as long as they remained exposed to space satellite or within mobile networks coverage areas. To avoid interfering with the programming, we decided to leave them at the far eastern time zone that they had been set – this was six hours ahead of Central African Time.

NB: The times recorded by the pictured trackers are therefore six (6) hours ahead of South African time. We have converted the times for this report.

Tracker No T05A (Call-Tag TQ-0846)

In good faith, we enclosed this tracker (with a gross weight of 35grams) in a prepaid self-addressed courier parcel. With knowledge that a used Nespresso Capsule (with some degree of moist or wetness) weighs about 14grams, we placed 95 used capsules into the bag – the difference in numbers were to cover the extra weight of our gadget. Nespresso recommends 100 capsules per its ‘completely recyclable bag’.

Package containing 95 used Nespresso Capsules and our T05A device shortly before it was delivered to Nespresso Boutique at V&A Waterfront Cape Town in the morning of Tuesday April 2

Also enclosed in the package was uSpiked’s letter addressed to the recycling plant manager explaining our project.

The trackers used in this assignment were set to remit their respective locations to our control unit every 60 (sixty) minutes or on demand, depending on the availability of signal.

On Tuesday, April 21, 2015 just after 09:30 (South African Time), we deployed this tracker with 100% battery life. The package was delivered to Nespresso Boutique at V&A Waterfront, Cape Town.

Two hours and eleven minutes later (11:41:05 hrs SAT), T05A was pinging from just behind The Blue Shed Waterfront, a waste holding area managed by Fetchwaste (a company sub-contracted by Wasteman to clear waste matter at V&A Waterfront). Only Nespresso Boutique can explain how the consignment got mixed up with the general waste from the Waterfront.

The tracker was last pinged at that same location on Wednesday, April 22, at 02:28:08 (SAT) before losing all signals including GSM and LBS (GPS). The signal resurfaced some thirteen hours later at a fishing boat docked at a secure operational area under the control of I&J – one of the country’s largest deep sea fishing companies.

The last recorded signal was on Wednesday, April 22, at 20:13:47 (SAT), still within the fishing boat. What were the used coffee capsules meant for delivery to Johannesburg doing in a fishing boat in Cape Town? Or why would waste collected from the shopping complex be within the waters of the Atlantic Ocean?

Our hi-tech gadget, Nespresso’s 95 aluminium coffee capsules, the ‘completely recyclable bag’ and our plastic courier bag containing the device, seemed ready to go fishing. We would be keen to receive some ideas of how this happened.

Tracker No T02A with a Call-Tag TQ-08375

The T02A was packed into a similar Nespresso bag, but with slightly fewer capsules than those contained in TO2A. We delivered the package to Nespresso’s Canal Walk Boutique on Thursday April 23, just before 15:00 hrs (SAT).

Our system monitored the package being moved from Canal Walk on April 24, 2015. After some brief detours, it was on its way to Johannesburg by road. By noon the following day, the device remitted its location from a CourierIT truck that was briefly parked in Beaufort West. Later that day it was moving along M84 in Kempton Park, Johannesburg.

It was checked-in safely at CourierIT’s Kempton Park depot some hours later. We have further confirmation that the consignment was safely delivered to Oricol Environmental Services collection center a few streets from the depot.

Would a corporation go into the trouble of transporting capsules accompanying our tracking device with no intentions of recycling? We hope not. There could be some recycling of the used aluminium coffee capsules taking place, though we have totally failed to understand how T05A ended up on a fishing vessel.

We must further add that as we were processing this report, Stewart Beric Brown, the Chief Executive of Top Vending (Pty) Ltd (Nespresso’s local agent) sought a meeting with uSpiked and one of our devices was returned, though not in the protective sealed packaging we had placed it on.

See  Nespresso Responds


Two hours eleven minutes after delivery of the package, T05A was pinging from just behind The Blue Shed, Waterfront

Final location reading from behind the Blue Shed, Waterfront

First Ping by T05A from a vessel docked at a secure area operated by I&J

Final ping from T05A from the same vessel, still docked at the I&J secure area

T02A, thirty minutes after delivery to Nespresso Boutique, Canal Walk on Thursday April 23

T02A pinging from Beaufort West on board a CourierIT truck

T02A pinging from M84, in Gauteng

T02A checking in at CourierIT Deport in Kempton Park, Johannesburg