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Earlier today, a friend posted a picture on social media showing a large pile of Nespresso™ style capsules she had been given to try. What she undoubtedly saw as good coffee, I saw as an environmental disaster, and I said so. Her reply was 'they're aluminium' as though that made everything right, because they could be recycled. That took no account of the energy required to produce the aluminium in the first place. As a scientist, it got me thinking. It seems that each Nespresso™ capsule contains 5-6g of coffee and 1g of aluminium. Given that my regular mug is made with 28g of coffee that's the equivalent of five capsules just for one drink. And I'll typically have four of those a day, sometimes more. If I were to use Nespresso™ capsules rather than fresh beans, I would end up with twenty grams of aluminium per day for recycling. That may not sound much, but when I buy 500g of fresh beans, the paper bag only weighs 15g, and that lasts four to five days. Paper also doesn't need anywhere near as much energy to recycle as aluminium. The product to packaging ratio for the capsules is abysmal. CSIRO, the Australian government's scientific research body, published a report; Energy use in metal production [pdf]. Aluminium is the least energy efficient common metal to produce. Each kilogram of aluminium expends 211.4MJ of energy during mining, smelting and other processing. That's 211.4kJ per single use capsule just in production of the raw material, before it's shipped around the world and formed into coffee pods. We can ignore that for the moment and look at what 211.4kJ actually means in everyday terms. A measure of energy usage which people can more easily relate to is the kilowatt hour (kWh) - a one kilowatt electric heater running continuously for one hour will use one kilowatt hour of energy. 211.4kJ is equivalent to 0.0587kWh. That doesn't sound like a lot but it's about sixty watt hours; the amount of energy used by a sixty watt bulb running for an hour. Just for one coffee capsule, and just for the raw aluminium. I would use five capsules in a mug so that's three hundred watt hours in one go. A four times a day habit takes the total up to an hour and ten minutes of running a one kilowatt electric fire - every single day. If that isn't a scary way of looking at the environmental impact of these coffee capsules, I don't know what is. The producers try to tout their environmental credentials by promoting their recycling schemes but the material isn't environmentally friendly in the first place and producers don't yet have the capacity to recycle all the capsules they produce. Even when they have, consumers will still throw vast numbers away with general waste. Given that there's no likelihood of regulatory action to ban these products, consumer awareness of the environmental impact is the only way forward.
This is like one of those 'father of the atom bomb is sorry' stories (because it's not kind to the environment). John Sylvan, inventor of the US version of Nespresso pods admits, 'They're kind of expensive to use...plus it's not like drip coffee is tough to make'. He's no longer part of the company that makes them (and $4.7bn revenue last year) and a lot of landfill because even though they - and Nespresso - are recyclable, errr, people don't. 'If only we could invent a way of making coffee without mass-producing billions of plastic and aluminium pods'. The article is here: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/mar/04/why-the-man-behind-keurigs-coffee-pods-wishes-hed-never-invented-them