Nespresso, Excuses and Potential Solutions

Many of my friends tell me how they like to use Nespresso, and brush off my comments about not drinking anything but french press coffee from local coffee shops. No Starbucks. No Dunkin’ Donuts. No Keurig. No Nespresso. I like my coffee pure without the touch of any chemical reactions from highly processed materials and definitely without the unnecessary detrimental waste.

The point is — it doesn’t matter which brand of coffee pods you use, they’re all harming the planet.

I’d want to keep this article short and only say, why even debate, when you can see the French Press is much less energy and much less waste. If the concern with the French Press is that too much coffee gets used and hence discarded for no reason, then just make a couple of compostable pods for use in our own French Press. But I won’t leave it at that.

Today seems to be Nespresso’s lucky day to catch my attention. I came across the below graph that supposedly shows Nespresso making the pod “more” eco-friendly, they claim a very big portion of the environmental impact is during consumer use.

Carbon Footprint Reduction “proof” from Nespresso’s website

The description they have on their website about this graph points out how they reduced their carbon footprint by 20% in 4 years. It also seems to indicate that they’re now more prepared to place the burden on the consumers.

First there is 28% energy use in cup production and washing. How was that number derived? Looked around on their site but couldn’t find much information about the details of the studies. Only more summaries. Capsule production is 13% but cup production is 28%? hmph. I, for example, use a glass mug and wash it in my energy efficient dishwasher along with at least 30 other mugs/cups/glasses not to mention plates and utensils. How does that come up to using 28% of energy? Maybe assuming people hand wash their mugs? These are people who don’t want to pour out coffee grounds from the bottom of a French Press, not sure they’re candidates for hand-washing.

Also, please look at how “machine production and use” is also looped into “Use Stage”. Given that the machine is specifically created for Nespresso pods — that’s a problem for Nespresso to resolve right along with the “Capsule, packaging and machines end-of-life” bit. How can the “capsule, packaging and machine end-of-life” be just 5.5%? It includes the energy required to transport them to the recycling facilities, sort them, recycle them and more — or doesn’t it? Many questions.

Greenwashing? Smells like it. Here’s an industry created by capitalism disregarding the impact on the planet and environment. A company who refuses to disclose the number of pods they sell, but readily claims they have capacity to recycle 75% of their pods. Raises many questions.

Here’s why I feel so strongly about this: If they sell pods that can circle the Earth 11 times in one year* but have the capacity to recycle 75% of that this means, by definition, the number of pods they are causing to go into landfill each year can circle Earth 3 times, IF all users recycled all the pods. Which we know is not the case. These have been on the market since 2006 — though the recycling wasn’t available until about 2011 — being conservative, if only the “overflow” was sent to landfills in the 11 years — that’s enough pods to circle Earth about 33 times. All those pods are still somewhere on our planet.

Seems a common case of the corporate world complicating matters with expensive charts and models and who knows how much paper pushing. The chart above serves more as a smoke screen than progressing solutions to known issues. Don’t confuse motion with progress, as Peter Ducker said.

One known issue is that not all consumers recycle the pods. These are people who buy pods so that they don’t have to wash out coffee grounds from the bottom of a French Press! It’s a demographic who is highly unlikely to go through the trouble of collecting their pods properly and taking them to the appropriate collection center.

Possible Quick Win Improvements to the Impact

One way to increase the number of users who recycle — without making additional infrastructure changes — would be to introduce incentives for recycling. Just like aluminum cans — every box returned 50cents or another appropriate value. This could also create a system where even if it does end up in the trash or on the streets somehow, the homeless or other collectors might be more inclined to take back. This is an easier solution since it’s already done with other aluminum cans. The point is to have the right intention and drive = keep stuff out of our landfills and oceans!

Even introducing vending machine collection points in all grocery stores and malls etc. The more pods you feed the machine the more money you get back. Just like the plastic bottle ones all over the place. Nespresso does have some collection points in their stores, and if they had others in more frequently visited areas it would make the collection easier for anybody. Solutions exist if we’re willing to look beyond the comfort of the status quo.

Another point is to partner with companies. The truth remains that especially in America the majority of the coffee is consumed in offices and other workplaces. If companies have the incentive, again they’ll come up with a solution to collect their coffee pods and recycle them appropriately, increasing the recycling volume. That is if the honest intention is to increase the recycling. There are a variety of ways of doing this — from marketing schemes (i.e points, campaigns, Executive Clubs) to direct purchase discounts etc.

Another initiative might be to print facts about the impact of not recycling these pods in the pod boxes being sold — keeping consumers more plugged into the issues and working together with them, increasing their involvement. Not many consumers see these graphs, and they don’t care because they aren’t aware of the issues. Printing number of pods recycled and kept out of landfills and oceans would be one way. Providing the statistic for “if you recycle this box, and all the boxes you buy this is how you’d be contributing to our planet’s well-being” (insert average #of pods ONE consumer/household buys). Well-meaning corporations can use their stage to inform consumers as to why this is important.

True — it’s at least not plastic. Still it’s using up a lot of our planet’s resources and adding to the carbon footprint unnecessarily. How is it so difficult to use the good old French Press? So simple. Grind, boil, pour, Press and enjoy. Pour grinds into compost bin. 0 waste. Lower cost. 0 chemicals. Choice.

  • This is an estimate derived from their last sales disclosure in 2011 (12,300cups per minute = 6.469Billion per year). This was in 2011 and we know their sales went up since then. So this number is extremely conservative as to the number of pods being sent into landfills every year.

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