One of the fundamental strengths of capitalism is its ability to prey upon people’s desire to having homes equipped with the latest technology. As of 2012, European markets have seen an unprecedented rise in popularity of coffee pod machines, with Nestle leading the market with its Dolce Gusto and Nespresso brands. Unbeknown to consumers, the coffee pods used for these machines are almost completely non-recyclable, setting back decades of progress made into the production of highly recyclable packaging.
The rise of the coffee pods is not only being observed in homes across the world, but they have also established themselves in numerous high end restaurants. Around 2,400 Michelin-starred restaurants across in the world are using Nespresso as their first choice of coffee to serve customers, with clients including Heston Blumenthal’s three-Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant in London, and several high-end New York restaurants and hotels such as Forcella, Brasserie 8 ½, and The Four Seasons.
No one can really blame such catering establishments with switching to coffee-pod machines – they require no expertise to operate, take up minimal space and provide a considerable profit margin.
The problem with operating coffee-pods machines is the amount of waste that they generate. It has been estimated that 186m capsules were consumed between 2012 and 2013 in Britain alone – but where do these go? The truth is that the vast majority of these capsule are not being recycled. Dolce Gusto capsules cannot be recycled in the UK, while Nespresso capsules can be collected by the company itself only if you order further capsules from their website. Otherwise, consumers would need to recycle pods at their UK stores (located only in London, Manchester and Birmingham). Other coffee pod brands provide similar option of dropping off used capsules at collection points.
Coffee pod capsules are made from mixed plastic needed to withstand hot water injected at high pressure during the brewing process. Mixed plastic materials cannot be recycled with other plastic materials and have to be landfilled (unless recycling plants offer the option of recycling mixed plastics specifically). Secondly, the pods themselves are also made from aluminium foil and contain ground coffee – this further complicates the recycling process since these different components need to be separated.
The Nespresso website indicates that despite their efforts at improving their environmental outcomes:
“the complexities of the recycling process and logistics of capsule recovery, coupled with varying levels of public engagement and legislation, make a standardized approach to recycling difficult”.
Currently, neither Nespresso nor Dolce Gusto capsules can be collected for recycling in Malta. Furthermore, no official statistics are available for how many capsules are consumed in the local market, but one can estimate that from the 19,000 fans on the Dolce Gusto Malta Facebook page (Nespresso is not as popular on the island). If at least half of these own a machine and consume an average of one capsule per day, there is an annual generation of 3.5 million capsules solely from Dolce Gusto in Malta – all of which are not recycled and will probably have to landfilled.
While I am one to go for a good cup of java while at home, I would much rather wait the extra ten minutes to use my Italian style coffee percolator. At least the ground coffee can be put to good use as compost and the packaging can be added to the rest of my recyclables.