VIEW – Can coffee pods find their place in a sustainable world?

23 August 2016

We want you in our newsletter. This week David Gandar of Delta Software looks at how the coffee pod phenomenon reflects tensions between convenience and sustainability.

The Nespresso machine has been around since 1976. A decade of powerful growth has now brought it in to the mainstream. Some have labelled its throwaway capsules an ‘environmental disaster’. Even one of the machine’s inventors says he feels guilty about it and doesn’t use one.

David Gandar, owner and founder of Auckland-based Delta Software, takes a look at the issues.   

“A fair summation would say that Nespresso has a genuine commitment to reduce environmental impact,” he says. “It is showing that commitment through a moderate level of transparency. Fair trade for growers is well-embedded in their supply chain. But the recycling initiatives leave too much to consumer attitude to be useful.

“The whole sustainability programme is constrained by the overriding sales growth goal. It is founded on a last-century resource model. We treat waste as a necessary by-product of being a profitable producer. Reusability is an afterthought not a core design principle.”

The question then is this: Can a mass-produced product designed for global supply and consumption ever be sustainable?

David says: “Nespresso, like thousands of profit-motivated businesses, is working hard to meet a sustainability goal. But it’s working with an inherently unsustainable economic system. The product generates two high-volume wastes: spent coffee grounds and single-use aluminium coffee capsules.”

David advocates the Circular Economy approach. This is currently being championed in New Zealand by the Sustainable Business Network. Taking that approach would mean all waste, including the spent waste from consumers, would be repurposed as part of the production cycle.

“For Nespresso the main problem is the coffee capsules,” he says. “They have no obvious purpose other than being broken down and recycled.”. “This is generally not done by local recycling plants, but by the few Nespresso-approved recycling collection stations.”

Enter global waste recycling innovator TerraCycle. TerraCycle is working with Nespresso on a new initiative. This will break down the aluminium in the pods for re-use. It lines up with Nespresso’s commitment to the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative for end-to-end reusability of the metal. 

Nespresso is paying the shipping cost to send used pods to the nearest TerraCycle collection station. It will work via NZ Post, another SBN member.

David says: “This shows a real business commitment to balancing the growth ethic with sustainable production. It’s part of a mind-set shift. It’s a good one. But it’s still only part of the shift needed for environmental neutrality. 

“There is one further step to take. This would nail in the end-to-end commitment needed. That step would require that all waste material, from production through delivery to end-use, is owned by the producer that profits from the sale.”

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