Environmental problem brews with 3 million coffee pods a day
"HOW far will you go?" asks an espresso-sipping George Clooney in the Nespresso television commercial. He's talking about lengths we would go for good coffee, but it's a question coffee pod drinkers of all brands should ask themselves.
Those convenient caffeine morsels we've grown to love and rely so heavily on for a quick fix are fast becoming an environmental disaster.
Coffee pods are technically 100% recyclable. But are they being recycled? You might think you're "doing the right thing" by placing your plastic or aluminium pods into your recycling bin - because in most cases the box says you can, but they're ultimately ending up in landfill anyway.
It's said Australians are consuming about three million pods a day. More than 1.5 million households in Australia own a pod machine, a number forecast to double by 2018 with reports the capsule coffee market is on track to overtake the grocery bean market.
It's an example, says TransPacific Industries (TPI) Queensland recycling manager Hugo Parris, where packaging and marketing technology has outpaced a solution to residual waste. At Material Recovery Facilities - where your recycling truck transports household waste to be sorted - coffee pods are unable to be recycled.
"There's a difference between 'they (coffee pods) are recyclable' and 'they can be recycled' or 'they're cost-effective to recycle'," Mr Parris says.
TransPacific Industries operates a Material Recovery Facility, known as a MRF and pronounced merf, in Hervey Bay. MRFs across Australia are operated by councils or are privately owned.
"We neither have the infrastructure nor the technology to be able to handle them," he told Weekend. "The screens to filter materials at our MRFs are too large and items such as coffee pods are able to pass straight through. Therefore, they end up in landfill.
"TPI does not encourage or direct our customers to recycle coffee pods due to the contamination of the grounds as well as the foil lids in each pod. If we were to attempt to separate the pods in our process and remove the grounds and the lids off each pod, this would incur huge costs which would have to be passed on to the consumer.
"Recycling small volume materials is an extremely costly exercise and our recycling businesses focus on solutions for large volume commercial and industrial generators of cardboard, plastic and polystyrene."
Coffee pods are a complex material. They're made up of used coffee grounds which is organic waste, aluminium like those manufactured by Nespresso, or variations of plastics for most other capsules.
"The idea for a MRF is for it to be self-sufficient by extracting recycling commodities and being able to on-sell them to offset the cost of collection and sorting - that's the ideological view we're aiming for," Mr Parris says.
"I don't know whether coffee pods were assumed to be one of those high volume items that would be expected to be passing through a MRF and that would be the same throughout the country. It's quite a recent phenomenon. Technology needs to catch up."
Interestingly, the inventor of one of America's most popular coffee capsules, K-Cup, who sold enough capsules in 2013 to circle the earth nearly 11 times, came out in March admitting he wished he'd never created them - he doesn't even use them. "No matter what they say about recycling, those things (K-Cups) will never be recyclable," John Sylvan told The Atlantic. "The plastic is a specialised plastic made of four different layers…I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it."
In Australia, pods are considered a boutique recycling matter. As manufacturers seek ways to lessen the environmental footprint of their products and look to biodegradable options, the reality is it is currently more costly to recycle a single coffee pod than it is to dump it in landfill.
There are dozens of brands manufacturing capsules with the range now not limited to coffee and hot chocolate, but also tea and other milk-flavoured pods.
That's where global pioneer TerraCycle comes in - the biggest coffee capsule recycler in the world.
"We are really the only solution to coffee pod recycling in the country at the moment," Australian general manager Anna Minns says.
"If you or I put a coffee pod in a recycling bin, it's not going to be recycled because our systems are not set up to take them."
TerraCycle launched in Australia in March last year. Globally it collects 100 different kinds of non-recyclable garbage in 24 countries under a "sponsored waste" business model. Since 2002, it has diverted 2.5 billion pieces of waste from landfill around the world. For the first time in Australia, TerraCycle allows cigarette butts to be recycled into plastic pallets and various items for industrial use, among other products such as Colgate toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes.
"We recycle unrecyclables - anything that has no value to the big recycling companies. Our whole purpose is to create markets for waste that doesn't exist," Ms Minns says.
Walk into their Surry Hills office and everything is made from waste - from lampshades constructed from toothpaste tubes to cushions upcycled from old Qantas uniform fabric. TerraCycle have found an innovative way to make the manufacturers pay for their products to be recycled.
Nespresso is one of TerraCycle's founding partners Down Under. Consumers can take their spent capsules to one of the garbage mogul's 120 collection points at florists and garden centres nationwide or to a Nespresso boutique.
TerraCycle collects the used Nespresso capsules and sends them to a recycling plant in Nowra, in southern New South Wales. There the capsules are shredded and recycled into two streams. The residual coffee is separated and sent to an industrial composting facility and the capsules are smelted down for new aluminium products.
In 2013 Nespresso had sold an estimated 28 billion capsules worldwide - about 28 million kilograms of aluminium. Choice reported Nespresso collected "75% of all capsules sold worldwide" but the company, at the behemoth of Nestle, does not reveal how many pods they collect for recycling.
Each capsule contains a number of different plastics depending on the brand. "We palletise the plastic and that plastic can be injection moulded or extruded into new plastic products. They are 100% recycled through our system," Ms Minns says. "Manufacturers buy the low-grade plastic for hundreds of different products from esky liners to suitcase insulation - you name it.
"The real challenging part about waste is not the recycling part, it's collecting it. You collect separated waste in large volumes so you can recycle it."
TerraCycle also collects Dolce Gusto capsules in a slightly different arrangement to Nespresso, and is said to be in talks with Aldi brand K-fee.
"We aggregate volumes of just coffee capsules. We process the waste once we build up a volume of it. For every capsule we receive we give you two cents to donate to a school or a charity, and that whole cost is paid for by the brands. So Dolce Gusto, for example, pay for the cost of the shipping, the processing and the donation," Ms Minns says.
She says there are brands out there claiming recyclability when they cannot be recycled through traditional domestic waste systems.
"Types of plastics need to be accepted by councils to make it recyclable and therefore enable a manufacturer to claim recyclability. No councils will accept organics in recyclables. Technically, coffee pods are recyclable but they (manufacturers) can't claim it is. If they do work with us, then they will be able to legally say their capsules are recyclable."
As the environmental backlash percolates, Mr Parris ponders if coffee pods are merely a fad. "If it's financially viable I'm sure someone will come up with a solution," he says. "The danger is if someone comes out with a fantastic coffee plunger that doesn't require you to use pods then all of your millions of dollars of technology and machinery is lying idle, gathering dust."
HOW TO UPCYCLE YOUR SPENT COFFEE PODS
Use them as seedling starters
Create jewellery from aluminium pods
String coloured pods into a Christmas garland
Great for kids' craft
Fill with water and make ice cubes
Check out Pinterest for more great ideas.
FIVE WAYS TO RECYCLE COFFEE GROUNDS
1. Place a bowl of grounds in the fridge as a deodoriser
2. A great exfoliant - use as a body scrub
3. Use in the garden - fortifies plants and boosts nitrogen in soil, also keeps pests away.
4. Great compost - it also attracts worms
5. Use fresh grounds as a meat rub - it tenderises the meat and gives it a smoky flavour
RECYCLE WITH TERRACYCLE
1. Visit http://www.terracycle.com.au and enter your postcode to find your closest Nespresso Coffee Capsule Brigade location.
2. Take your used pods in a secure plastic bag to the drop-off point or your nearest Nespresso boutique.
Dulce Gusto program
1. Drain your capsules, put in a sealed bag, then place the sealed bag in a box.
2. Request a pre-paid shipping label from terracycle.com.au. Select the Send Me a Postage Label option and TerraCycle will email a pre-paid shipping label to you.
3. Ship the box to TerraCycle by affixing the pre-paid postage label and dropping it off at an Australia Post Office.
Receive two cents per capsule collected for your chosen non-profit organisation or school located in Australia.