Cost of convenience

By Gretchen Salois

Program moves to recycle single-serve coffee pods

August 2016 - There’s something to be said of rituals, like grinding your own coffee beans with a quick whirr and depositing them into a French press before hot water from the kettle hits the coffee grounds to meld it all together. However, that may be more of a weekend luxury, as most people’s weekdays are a hurried rush out the door. 

Convenience comes at a price. Paying more for perfectly portioned cups that, at the touch of a button, brews the perfect cup of joe in a New York minute is worth it for many consumers across the globe. But what happens to those pods? Once used, aluminum and plastic pods alike are often tossed into a waste bin, ending up in a landfill somewhere. 

Aluminum producer Constellium manufactures the aluminum pods used in Nestlé Nespresso coffee makers and is working to keep the coffeemaker’s capsules from ending up in the trash. The Second Life initiative is Constellium and Nespresso’s joint program to promote recycling of used pods to minimize waste. 

“We see an increased interest from all our customers on the sustainability credentials of our company and our products,” says Catherine Athènes, Constellium sustainability leader. “This is why Constellium works on a variety of recycling projects and why we provide life-cycle assessment expertise.”

Coffee capsules are typically made from virgin metal manufactured from raw materials. “In the case of the Second Life project, the capsules were made of recycled capsules,” Athènes says. “Once used by consumers, coffee capsules are sent to recycling centers where the coffee grounds are separated out.” The leftover grounds are repurposed—used as compost, heating briquettes and biogas.

To date, Nespresso established its own collection systems in 31 countries, including over 14,000 dedicated collection points, according to the company. 


Aluminum works

Whether made from primary or recycled metal, the advantage of using aluminum is that the alloy’s integrity does not downgrade during smelting. Once the coffee grounds are separated out, the aluminum is treated and resmelted in a recycling unit at Intals SpA in Italy, then rolled by Constellium at its Singen, Germany, plant. 

The recycling process itself “is not simple but it spares 95 percent of the energy used to produce virgin aluminum from bauxite ore,” Constellium’s Athènes says. From an environmental standpoint, the carbon footprint of the one-use coffee capsule was reduced “by 20 percent since 2009,” according to Nespresso. 

Depending on the volume of the scrap, various remelting processes allow the non-aluminum components (e.g., organics) to be separated from the aluminum, which remains in its original form, says Athènes.

“Aluminum,” she continues, “can be endlessly melted down and recast with no loss of its inherent properties.” 

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