If there are 86,400 seconds in a day, and 161 million coffee capsules (or pods, whichever you prefer) are thrown away daily, then every single second, there are 1,870 people making a decision about what to do with that waste right now. In their hand, they hold an aluminium capsule about 6㎠ in size, containing between 5 and 10 grams of used coffee. That capsule is the focus of this article because whilst it may seem a small and inconsequential piece of rubbish, it was actually the catalyst for Halo to launch a truly sustainable alternative.
Back to the story, what happens next?
Those 636 people per second must make a choice. Do they throw the capsule in the general waste not knowing that it is recyclable? Do they put it in their recycling bin, as they’ve been taught to? Or, do they go the extra mile to place it in the specialist recycling bag until they have enough capsules to warrant going and finding a place to drop it off at or to try organising a collection?
To answer that, I have to ask ‘Why have capsules become so popular?’. Over the last 20 years, coffee capsules have become a regular feature in coffee shops, office kitchens, and the home. They’re quick and simple to use, the resulting coffee is delicious, and George Clooney said ‘What else?’ in a TV advert, basically giving the nod for global popularity.
However, rather quickly, people switched on to the fact that not all is golden with these capsules. There’s an inconvenient trail of waste left in the wake of this convenience...
Why are the capsules so bad for the environment?
Let’s summarise it quickly:
- The plastic part of the capsule will never fully break down if left to nature to biodegrade
- Aluminium is an abundant resource but is energy-intensive to smelt and mould
- 88% of a capsule is recyclable aluminium, but the lacquer, plastic, and silicone ring are not recycled
- 59 billion capsules were produced in 2018 and 56 billion of those are likely to end up in a landfill
Those 56 billion capsules could circle the equator 70 times, at least.
And yet, they don’t circle the equator, they end up being buried, for the most part. If you’re starting to be concerned about this mass-production of coffee capsules, you’ll start to understand why Halo set out to create a truly sustainable alternative, manufacturing home-compostable capsules made from natural byproducts.
Are the aluminium capsules actually recyclable?
Technically, yes, but not by the vast majority of local councils or recycling facilities. There are a smattering of UK councils and private companies who have worked with Nespresso and their competitors to learn how to recycle this waste, but in general, the capsules must be sent to the producers who have set up recycling schemes of their own.
Here’s some more information on those schemes.
In the case of Nespresso, the UK market leader, the capsules that are collected, set aside, stored, put in a plastic bag and either posted, collected (from one of 6,000 UK locations), or deposited (at one of 50 locations) will end up going to a domestic recycling facility in Cheshire in most cases. This is the predominant facility for capsule recycling in the UK, but it is part of a very small network of facilities that can effectively recycle the pods. Note that waste coffee grounds are typically set aside to be turned into compost.
There are 39 countries with the recycling facilities to handle Nespresso coffee capsules, but the problem is that these facilities cannot come close to handling the 27 billion-plus capsules that they produce each year. Remember, this is just one manufacturer.
This perhaps explains why cities like Hamburg have banned capsules from Government buildings, deeming it a ‘polluting product’, and why artists are making use of the excess aluminium to make bicycles, to give one wacky example.
What about capsule recycling outside of the UK?
In Australia, where the capsules are growing increasingly popular, there are more than 340 drop-off points around the country for Nespresso alone. The pods are taken to specialist facilities where they are turned back into more coffee pods. There’s also the option to post your capsules. It’s normal in Australia to drop your capsules off at florists.
Between the USA and Canada, there are more than 500 collection points, which is not a lot for a total of 350 million people. In the USA, the preferred method is postage. In Canada, several retailers, including Home Outfitters, also act as drop-off points.
Is recycling aluminium coffee capsules really the way forward?
Forward, perhaps not, but it is a necessary stage right now. Of course, as a producer of home-compostable coffee capsules, Halo has cracked the code and solved the problem. The issue now is that capsule manufacturing will continue to grow at a faster rate than the adoption of non-aluminium capsules. The way forward, as I put the question in the title, is to move away from aluminium and use more sustainable alternatives, as it has already been proven that aluminium resources are not being managed effectively.
There’s a psychological issue too. If capsules offer an easy and convenient way to make coffee, then many of the users will likely not go the extra mile to research their recycling and disposal options. This potentially means subconsciously converting many of these coffee drinkers to sustainable alternatives, which could prove incredibly difficult. I’ve highlighted Nespresso in this article, but the same rings true for all coffee capsules makers. They generally do not have the facilities to recycle their own production numbers, and local councils are ill-equipped to handle them due to the impracticalities of recycling small pieces of aluminium.
The inconvenient truth of this convenient coffee-preparing method is that waste is absolutely guaranteed. Even Nespresso’s own company report said that only 28% of their capsules are being recycled, which is optimistic at best, and way short of their 50% target (based on existing infrastructure). A minimum of 72% of their capsules are going to landfill, which is a staggering and saddening waste of resources. If the intention of consumers is to chuck the used capsules away, why not use capsules that will quickly biodegrade and do no harm?
Halo’s commitment to sustainability
As the number of capsules in production rose, so did the demand for an alternative that refused to harm the environment and generate further waste. Halo has done exactly that, creating a home-compostable capsule that is made from natural byproducts. In around three weeks, that capsule will be returned naturally to the Earth. Everybody wins.