Greenwash alert: Nespresso capsule recycling

by on September 12, 2011

(See end of post for refillable alternatives to Nespresso capsules)

Nespresso, the single-serve espresso machine/pod division of giant conglomerate Nestlé, has received accolades for its “Ecolaboration” sustainability project. Nespresso accounts for only 5% of Nestlé’s sales, but Ecolaboration provides the majority of the company’s public green image. I’ve written about the coffee sourcing aspect of this project in the past, revealing what a tiny fraction of Nestlé’s coffee is to be sourced sustainably under this initiative. Here, we’ll take a look at Nespresso’s coffee capsule/pod recycling efforts, which are frequently misrepresented in the media — unfortunately, in Nespresso’s favor.

Nespresso will put in place the capacity to recycle 75% of its capsules. They never claim this many will be recycled, and don’t reveal how many have been recycled in the past.

Nespresso’s proprietary coffee capsules, used in their single-serve espresso machines, are made primarily of aluminum, a metal that is entirely recyclable. Good thing, because aluminum production — from mining the primary elements to creating the metal — has a large environmental impact. But just because the capsules are made of a recyclable material doesn’t mean they are being recycled.

What Nespresso is actually doing – increasing capacity

Nespresso encourages recycling by establishing “collection points” (big bins) for the capsules in their boutiques and local communities; in a few areas Nespresso Club customers can return them via courier when new capsules are delivered. Nespresso has never set actual recycling goals, they have only claimed they would increase capacity to recycle the capsules. The current goal is 75% by 2013, up from the current 60%. This means establishing enough collection systems to collect 75% of the capsules — it says absolutely nothing about how many capsules are actually recycled.

What Nespresso is not doing – revealing recycling rates

In their June 2011 progress report (PDF), Nespresso repeats their capacity goals, and despite listing all kinds of metrics, never once mentions the true recycling rate for the capsules, only the number of collection points in various countries. On their web site, the only mention of recycling rate is for Switzerland, where collection systems have been in place since 1991 and are available at a ratio of one collection point per 3400 citizens. The rate there is 70% of capsules sold in the country.  Of course, Swiss recycling rates are very high because citizens are charged by volume for throwing away garbage, and can be fined for throwing away recyclables. For the rest of Europe, I have found no statistics. Zero Waste Europe states that the rate for recycling Nespresso capsules is unlikely to go above 25%.

What the media is doing – ignoring the above

What is really discouraging is that the media frequently overlooks that Nespresso is talking about capacity and not actual recycling rates. Examples of articles that mistakenly say Nespresso will be recycling 75% of its capsules are here, here, and here, just to show a few. Careless media outlets either miss the distinction, or are unmotivated or don’t care to question the effectiveness and results. As a result is that consumers are left thinking Nespresso is recycling large numbers of capsules instead of distributing tons of waste.

Barriers to recycling Nespresso capsules

I’m not sure if people who already find preparing a cup of coffee from whole beans too much effort are the best candidates to recycle the capsules.  For the most part, they’ll have to collect the capsules at home and schlep them into a Nespresso retail outlet. In the U.S., as I noted in my post about Keurig’s K-Cup recovery program, American consumers don’t always recycle even when it’s easy for them; voluntary residential curbside recycling without incentives in the U.S. averages around 68%.

And why can’t Nespresso capsules just be tossed in recycling bin, like other aluminum? As with K-Cups, first the coffee grounds have to be separated from the capsules before the aluminum can be recycled. There is actually a device on the market that consumers can purchase that will do this so that the capsules can be recycled. This leads to the second problem: many recycling programs cannot process items as small as the Nespresso capsule because they fall through the holes used for weeding out debris, or jam the sorting machines.  Therefore, well-meaning consumers may very well just be sending them to someone else to toss in the garbage.

I don’t care if Nespresso’s capacity is 200% of the capsules sold. It means nothing unless the capacity is being used. Nespresso states that 12,300 capsules are used PER MINUTE. That’s 6.4 billion a year. Even if half are being recycled that means over 3200 metric tons of aluminum is being sent to landfills annually. This is just another example of convenience and profit (the coffee works out to $60/pound, generating an estimated 30% profit margin) trumping environmental responsibility.

Greenwash

Strictly speaking, greenwashing is the use of marketing to imply that a company’s products are environmentally friendly. Nestlé’s  statements are clear in what they are (and are not) doing when it comes to their Nespresso capsule recycling, and even their green coffee sourcing. They can’t be entirely blamed for the lack of critical examination of their efforts. However, Nespresso’s very heavily promoted Ecolaboration campaign says nothing about the sustainability of the rest of Nestlé’s coffee division — the other 94% of the coffee they buy.  Or about the lack of genuine corporate citizenship by the entire company itself. I think it’s fair to categorize Nespresso’s capsule recycling initiative, and Ecolaboration itself, as a greenwashing tool for Nestlé’, don’t you?

P.S. As they have with Keurig K-Cups, enterprising people have come up with refillable replacement pods for some Nespresso machines. There is the relatively inexpensive plastic Coffeeduck, and two more substantial stainless steel versions: the MyCoffeeStar Refillable Capsule and the Sealpod (5 pack).

Nespresso capsule photos by Sarah Deforche and Jean-Yves Romanetti.

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Revised on March 1, 2015

Posted in Corporate coffee,Nestlé’/Nespresso

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