Where does my Coffee Pod Go? Emissions Impacts of Pod Recycling

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Written by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University

I want to preface this article by saying that I do not have any of Nespresso’s actual sales, collection or logistics data. All information used in this modeling is based on publicly available sources – if anybody has access to better data, I would be happy to re-run the analysis.

Coffee pod waste has become a particularly contentious issue as of late. The ubiquity of the coffee pod, coupled with its apparent difficulties being managed at end of life, has forced pod producers to develop packaging that can be readily recycled or composted in existing waste management systems.

Nespresso has proven to be a pioneer in this space, developing a readily recyclable aluminum pod, and investing in a “take back” infrastructure that allows consumers to return used coffee pods back to Nespresso. It is truly a novel solution to a growing problem – aluminum is not only readily recyclable, but offers a significant environmental benefit when comparing recycled vs. virgin sources (According to EcoInvent, recycling one tonne of aluminum using an Ontario energy grid mix abates 10.1 tonnes of carbon).

So all is good with the world, and we should embrace Nespresso as our sustainable pod manufacturer of choice? Not so fast….

Where the university became interested in the issue is when learning about Nespresso’s “take back” program in partnership with Canada Post. As per: https://www.nespresso.com/ca/en/recycling-process-red-bag, households are provided a bag to store used Nespresso capsules. Once they have filled the bag (with approximately 30 capsules), households can return this bag to a Canada Post office, where it will be delivered to 1 of 13 recycling facilities across the country that are equipped to compost used coffee grounds and recycle the aluminum. A separate “take back” program is available for commercial customers who operate in office buildings and retail spaces.

Being the keen researchers that we are, we decided to put this program to the test. After 10 days of coffee consumption (averaging approximately 3 pods per day between two people), we found that the average used capsule (net of coffee grounds) weighed 5.7 grams, and a “full” drop off bag weighed a shade over 280 grams. Once the bag was full, this bag was dropped off at a Canada Post office – it wasn’t readily apparent which facility this bag would be shipped to (which turns out, is the million dollar question).

Based on the materials used in the capsule and the bag (aluminum and LDPE film respectively), we calculated that the emissions credit (attributable to recycling) equaled:

Emissions Credit Single Pod Recycling (Aluminum) 0.00005706 TCO2e Emissions Credit Collection Bag (LDPE Film) 0.000004896 TCO2e Emissions Credit Per Consumer Bag Return 0.001716606 TCO2e

This is actually a pretty compelling finding – for every full bag of capsules returned to Nespresso, the emissions savings attributable to recycling is 0.001716606 TCO2e . When we think about the number of pods sold into the Canadian market – estimated in the hundreds of millions per calendar year – the potential environmental benefit from coffee pod recycling is enormous…… until we factor in the transportation emissions for getting those pods back to Nespresso.

The emissions impacts of waste collection is a significant component when calculating the life cycle impact of a particular waste management option. For curbside recyclable and waste collection, a specially configured truck will go from house to house, and when full, return to the transfer station/depot to empty it’s material before redeploying to the road. The efficiency of this approach is in having a “critical mass” of material (within a specified geographical boundary), that only requires collection when sufficient waste has been generated.

Going back to our Nespresso example, the university shipped a 280g bag back to a recycling facility via Canada Post. Assuming that Canada Post uses a standard parcel delivery vehicle using petrol, 0.00012 TCO2e of carbon are emitted for every kilometer traveled (EcoInvent). Using the above value, if our bag of used pods traveled more than 15km, the emissions impacts of transport supersede the environmental benefit of recycling (0.0018TCO2E transport emissions vs. 0.001716606TCO2e recycling credit)

With that being said, it is not likely that our package of used coffee pods was the only thing in that Canada Post truck (transport emissions need to be distributed across all items shipped), but it raises the questions of “How many shipments of pods are we making?” and “Where are we shipping those pods to?”

While I do not have the sales data for Nespresso, I would safely say that at least 100 million Aluminum pods are sold to Canadian households every year. Given that each of the pre-paid shipping bags can store approximately 30 used pods, that is 3.3 million bags that ultimately need to be shipped back to Nespresso for recycling. That is potentially 3.3 million unique trips, across hundreds (and possibly thousands of kilometers) to recycle something that may be doing more harm to the environment than good. The environmental viability of the approach is entirely contingent on shipping a critical mass of materials, 300 kilometers or less.

I genuinely don’t know if this is the case. Maybe households stock pile their bags and send them back only once a month? Or maybe Canada Post has hundreds of consolidation points, and only ship the bags back to Nespresso once they have sufficient materials? The point of this post is to highlight that we have to “look beyond the headlines” and ask meaningful questions about how the products we use are actually managed at their end of life.

Nespresso should be applauded for finding a recyclable alternative and innovating in a way that moves us away from single use plastic pods. However, as both consumers and decision makers, we have to perform our due diligence when evaluating whether our actions (in this case, recycling) are achieving our intended objectives (preferable environmental outcomes).


About the Author

Calvin LAKHAN, Ph.D, is currently co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University (with Dr. Mark Winfield), a research project devoted to advancing understanding of waste management research and policy in Canada. He holds a Ph.D from the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University joint Geography program, and degrees in economics (BA) and environmental economics (MEs) from York University. His research interests and expertise center around evaluating the efficacy of municipal recycling initiatives and identifying determinants of consumer recycling behavior. Calvin has worked as both a policy planner for the MOECC and as a consultant on projects for Stewardship Ontario, Multi Material Stewardship Manitoba, and Ontario Electronic Stewardship. Calvin currently sits on the editorial board for Advances in Recycling and Waste Management, and as a reviewer for Waste Management, Resources Conservation and Recycling and Journal of Environmental Management