At Nespresso, a Fine Greenwash for Your Coffee

Photograph courtesy Nespresso Close

Photograph courtesy Nespresso

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Photograph courtesy Nespresso

Fiji Water, known for shipping plastic bottles of water halfway around the globe, partners with Conservation International. Capri Sun, whose laminated aluminum pouches need special handling to recycle, has a “pouch brigade” that underwrites the collection of its used drinks. (Tagline: Be green, earn green.) There may be no product so environmentally dubious that a well-publicized sustainability program can’t make it more palatable.

Nestle’s Nespresso, too, has a product that poses some environmental challenges. The machine’s little coffee pods (I go through three or so a day) can’t be recycled with other metals because of leftover coffee grounds. So, not to be outdone, Nespresso has a global “ecolaboration” program. According to its website, it includes support for sustainable farming practices, environmentally sensitive aluminum mining and a global recycling program, which Nespresso brought to the U.S. in 2011.

Those capsules add up. In 2010, Nespresso released a document with some details on its production facilities. It said that one in Avenches, Switzerland, would be able to produce 8.8 billion capsules a year by 2012, and that one in Orbe could produce 4.1 billion capsules a year. Nestle is at work on a third plant. The company now has the capacity to recycle more than three-quarters of the capsules it sells worldwide.

Returning my own bag of used capsules to a Nespresso store one day, I grew curious: What happens to our plastic sack of coffee grounds and aluminum after the handoff? And how many consumers are toting their capsules back to the store, or mailing them in, to take advantage of the recycling program? I called up Nespresso headquarters for clarification.

I got an offer to sit down with Frederic Levy, president of Nespresso USA. It was like asking about the calorie count of a candy bar and getting a sit-down with Willy Wonka.

We met in Nespresso’s New York headquarters, along with two members of the communications team, a Technical and Quality Manager and a representative of Weber Shandwick, an international PR firm. Levy made himself a cappuccino on the conference room’s bright red Nespresso machine, then laid out the company's program in a lush French accent. “I guarantee that I’ve put in place a system where if you want to recycle, you are able to do it,” he said.

The system includes three ways to recycle the pods. Customers can drop off their used pods at Nespresso boutiques and some Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table locations. They can order prepaid mailing labels from Terracycle, an international recycling company. And, in New York and California, they can order special recycling packages from UPS, which also come with prepaid shipping labels. Anyone in the U.S. can recycle his or her pods.

Do they?

“We don’t release details, because we don’t want our competition to track what we’re doing,” Levy said. “It’s very easy to reverse it and make calculations.”

In fact, it’s not all that easy to calculate how many coffee capsules Nespresso sells, but it’s worth trying. The billions of capsules its plants can produce give you some sense of its worldwide scale. Jon Cox, an analyst at Kepler Capital Markets in Zurich, estimates that Nespresso’s 2013 worldwide sales were $4.3 billion and that its U.S. sales will be about $500 million this year. In the U.S., capsules cost about 70 cents each. If Cox's numbers are accurate, well, you do the math.

The only publicly available numbers on how many of those capsules get recycled are from Terracycle, one of two recycling companies that process the pods in the U.S. Ag Choice, the other, declined to release information. Terracycle says that it has recycled 4,317,872 capsules since 2011. Since there are just two recyclers working the job, that figure would seem paltry next to the Nespresso that gets consumed in the States. All by my caffeinated self, I use around 800 capsules a year. At that rate, it takes just a few thousand regularly recycling citizens to reach Terracycle’s numbers.

Nespresso says "it takes time to change consumer behavior and build critical mass around recycling programs." It’s not hard, though, to think of how the company could speed that change along. Right now, Nespresso drinkers who recycle get nothing but the satisfaction of having done a good deed. Nespresso could add incentives to its recycling program, a la Capri Sun. The coffee clientele is too old for a pouch brigade, but what about you recycle 100 pods and get a free pack? It would take coffee loyalty cards to a whole new level.

“If you want to recycle, you can recycle,” Levy said, his cappuccino finished as our interview neared an end. “We consider it to be a love story. You have to be motivated, and at some point you need to make a commitment.”

If this is a love story, Nespresso sure is playing hard-to-get. That commitment bit isn't so much a declaration of love as a Gallic shrug.

--Additional reporting by Matthew Boyle

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