In 1986, Nestle created a new sector in the coffee market with its Nespresso brand, with which it aimed to enable anyone to create the perfect cup of espresso coffee. The single-cup premium coffee was born, thanks to the invention of the coffee capsule.
The brand is one of the strongest in the world and, with a turnover of more than £2bn, one of the most successful. Nespresso is coy about the exact number of capsules that it sells every year, but given that in 2013 it aims to buy more than one million bags of coffee, it is safe to say that it is a considerable number.
These capsules are made of aluminium. “Aluminium is the best material available today to protect the delicate flavours and aromas of the Nespresso Grand Cru coffees,” says Brema Drohan, UKand Ireland MD of Nespresso.
However, its production is a very energy-intensive process, with aluminium smelters operating at temperatures of up to 1,000°C. It also uses a lot of water, which is becoming increasingly supply-constrained around the world.
Yet the metal is also infinitely recyclable, Drohan adds, and recycling it has huge environmental benefits. After use it continues to retain all its properties, which makes it possible to recycle it into new aluminium products.
Compared to producing virgin aluminum from raw bauxite, recycling aluminium uses only 5% of the energy and creates 5% of the greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI), an industry value chain initiative launched in 2012 of which Nespresso is a founder member. Other members of the initiative include aluminium producer Rio Tinto Alcan, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and packaging giant Tetra-Pak. The ASI is working to create a standard for aluminium sustainability by 2014.
In 1991, the company started a dedicated recycling system in its home market of Switzerland and in 2009, it committed to put collection systems in place to triple its capacity to recycle used capsules to 75% by 2013, a goal that it exceeded this year. “As of 30 June 2012, the official capacity worldwide stands at 76.4%, surpassing our initial commitment to triple capacity,” says Drohan.
The recycling target was part of the company’s Ecolaboration programme, a commitment to cut the carbon footprint of a cup of Nespresso coffee by 20% between 2009 and 2013. The initiative has been verified and certified by Bureau Veritas, one of the leading global companies in compliance assessment and certification services.
Meanwhile, the company’s AluCycle initiative explores ways to build its capacity to collect used capsules for recycling and to source aluminium in more sustainable ways.
Nespresso is reluctant to comment on its budget for the initiative, the actual costs or any payback figures but 22 countries now have systems in place to collect used capsules and global collection capacity is above 76%.
In Germany,Sweden and Finland, the company has been able to work constructively with established national packaging schemes, while in 19 other markets, Nespresso has installed about 20,000 dedicated capsule collection points. In some countries such as France, recycling plants are unable to cope with the capsules as they are too small, while in others used aluminium capsules are not classified as packaging and so cannot be collected and recycled in national or local packaging recovery and recycling schemes.
In the UK, the recycling collection service was launched in 2009, ensuring that customers’ used capsules are collected on delivery of their new orders. Since June last year, the service has covered the whole of the UK mainland and the same service was launched in Ireland in April this year, with roll-out completed across the country by June.
To ensure that it met its targets, in markets where national packaging recycling schemes have not been available, the group has had to develop specific recycling solutions for Nespresso capsules, Drohan says. Those tailor-made solutions include:
- Collection points at Nespresso points of sales and capsule delivery
- Collection points in municipal waste collection points
- Courier recovery of used capsules when new capsules are delivered.
“We have also leveraged innovations in technology and developed new partnerships to improve recycling of aluminium in general and its used capsules in particular,” Drohan says. In France, for example, where small-size packaging cannot always be processed in packaging sorting centres, the company has been testing an electromagnetic system that separates small-scale aluminium packaging (such as capsules, pet food containers and bottle tops) from other waste, allowing the capsules to be recycled.
When it comes to lessons the company has learnt from the recycling initiative, Drohan says that one area the company could make improvements is in the recycling of capsules used by business customers. These capsules are a different shape to the capsules used by non-business customers and are made from different materials, although they still contain some aluminium. Nespresso is currently exploring ways to recover the aluminium from these capsules.
Having achieved its 2013 goal early, the company plans to increase the number of collection points and to continue to engage with customers to encourage them to return their used capsules. “We want to make it as easy as possible for them,” Drohan says.
Mike Scott is a freelance journalist