Aluminium to go

17 December 2019

Across the packaged goods landscape, sustainability is the focus of brand-owners, suppliers, retailers and their customers, chief among them Nespresso. John Fortune speaks to Julie Gallacher, Nespresso’s sustainability lead for the UK and Ireland, and Andy Lumsden, director of the Tandom Metallurgical Group, responsible for recycling its coffee pods, to discuss their work.

Tandom Metallurgical Group has a difficult task. In fact, difficult is an understatement. Tandom is on the front line of addressing the popular consumer misconception that coffee pods, though incredibly convenient and disruptive in changing coffee-drinking habits in the home, create a mound of waste and are not recyclable.

Currently, the recycling rate for Nespresso pods stands at 28%, and the company invests Sfr30 million (£23.4 million) in collecting and recycling capsules each year. While 28% doesn’t sound like very much, it has taken the better part of a decade to get here, using a lot of finance and innovation, that figure is a strong foundation – and 28% is a lot better than 0% to customers. Moreover it provides the basis for a common discourse around sustainability between consumers and Nespresso’s parent corporation, Nestlé: the latter demonstrating to those consumers that it is putting serious effort into making Nespresso adhere to sustainable goals.

Nonetheless the consumerist notion that pods create unnecessary waste is, according to Julie Gallacher, sustainability lead for UK and ROI, quite prevalent. “We have strong sustainability ambitions, plans and activities taking place and we are making consistent progress towards our goals. Consumers are misinformed but we are driving increased awareness of our recycling service and our actions so that our intentions are clear for a sustainable, better coffee drinking world.”

The recycling process works like this. Where feasible, aluminium from recycled capsules is used to make new ones, adding to the 20% of Vertuo capsules that are already made from recycled Nespresso capsules. To drive traceability in the aluminium supply chain and provide a uniform standard for critical issues affecting the value chain, Nestlé worked with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to establish the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI). In November 2018, it became the first company to use the world’s first ever responsibly sourced, ASI-certified aluminium. The final string to Nespresso’s sustainability bow is the reduction of its carbon footprint by an additional 10% a cup by 2020.

Commitment from the top

The Positive Cup is the company’s conviction to make each cup of Nespresso a benefit for wider society and the environment, an inclination that comes from the top of the company. In the words of the CEO Jean-Marc Duvoisin, “the power of innovation and a commitment to excellence has propelled the strong performance of Nespresso over the last 30 years. The same level of commitment has also driven our engagement in sustainability.”

Gallacher continues in that spirit, extolling the innovative approach Nespresso takes to sustainability. “We have defined our ongoing ambitions based on our materiality assessment process and they include: sustainable coffee sourcing and supporting the farmers and their communities directly. We are investigating how to unlock solutions for the circular use of aluminium with a focus on sourcing and recycling, and taking action on climate change mitigation and adaptation, improving our environmental performance.”

She identifies the latest priorities “based on the learning and experience gained over recent years. We have identified a number of key priorities, including: to further expand the collection systems to improve the valorisation and recycling rates of capsules after use, consistent with initiatives like the EU circular economy package; building on the Nespresso Sustainability Innovation Fund to design and accelerate co-financing solutions for proven business models such as community milling, set science-based targets for carbon reduction, and improving our monitoring and evaluation systems in the context of COP21 [the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference] and SDG 13 [Sustainable Development Goal 13]; and to continue the programmes that engage employees and consumers in our sustainability initiatives, such as promoting recycling, sharing the benefits of sustainable quality coffees and offering specific revival coffees from regions such as Cuba and Caquetá in Colombia.”

Golden metal

Gallacher is clear on why aluminium should become such a focus of Nespresso sustainability, a conclusion arrived at through some incredible numbers. 75% of all aluminium ever produced is still in use today. Using sustainably mined and refined aluminium saves 67% energy against creating new, virgin aluminium. Also, 86% of the aluminium carbon footprint occurs between the mining and production processes. Finally, and most impressively, producing aluminium from already-used aluminium saves energy by 95%.

“Our aluminium capsules have become iconic as a hallmark of design and quality,” she says. “Using the materiality assessment as a basis, we are working proactively with civil society and supply chain stakeholders to tackle the upstream challenges of sustainable aluminium production for the primary aluminium we use. Equally, we work at national and municipal level to maximise the circular potential of capsules after use thereby increasing secondary aluminium use.

“Aluminium is ideally suited to our packaging as it prevents exposure to oxygen, moisture and light, which would degrade the quality of our coffees. In capsules, the coffee is not in direct contact with the aluminium foil due to a food grade protection. Therefore, aluminium can never migrate into the cup during the brewing process.

“Aluminium offers usage versatility and performance. As a result of its intrinsic characteristics of robustness and recyclability – no matter how long it is used for – recycled aluminium retains the same technical properties as primary aluminium. Nespresso uses aluminium because it embodies both functional and environmental attributes. And it’s not just recyclable but infinitely recyclable.”

Working in Tandom

This takes us to the heart of the matter, and the reason for being at Tandom’s facilities. How can the pods be recycled? For all the effort that Nespresso has put into the process, there must still be consumer participation to contribute and streamline recycling to make collection more efficient. The coffee company still needs support from partners like Tandom to ensure that as much valuable aluminium is reclaimed and reused as possible, let alone what to do with the enormous quantity of coffee that is generated when separating the pods for recycling.

The success of the process is finely balanced though, as Andy Lumsden, commercial director of the Tandom facility, explains. “We can only evolve at the rate of the products and their quality that pass through the facility. We cannot reclaim pure aluminium from lesser grades, and the moment there is any contamination the grade we are able to create lessens.

He also refers to the reuse of old coffee, which usually finds its way into compost bins. “Separate collection helps to ensure we get the best quality products coming in, and keeping the materials as simple as possible is important too – but compostable is not as simple as it claims and can contaminate the stream, while simple mono materials makes reuse reduction and recycling much easier.”

Lumsden and Gallacher agree that any process of truly successful and regular material recoup, there must be a start to the progress. By establishing this infrastructure, those coffee pod recycling processes have been set in motion – both in aluminium coffee pods and in the compost from which old coffee can be gleaned.

There are possibilities for alternative uses for the coffee and with each new technology or process being applied, the quantity of valuable aluminium increases in recollection, and that talk of a positive cup gets closer to being a daily reality, from a company that has demonstrated for years its ability to follow through on their sustainable, environmental and community promises.

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