Coffee Capsules: Aluminum Waste, Environmental Damage and More

What does it say about our society when people feel so offended by my "anyone who drinks capsule coffee has lost control of their life" mantra that they’re compelled to write page after page of rants and insults?

Kaffeekapseln Uebersicht

What does it say about our society when people feel so offended by my “anyone who drinks capsule coffee has lost control of their life” mantra that they’re compelled to write page after page of rants and insults?

What does it say about our society when the Nespresso Club defends the preparation concept of a drink (!) as if I had just called into question the father of their children?

And above all:

What does it say about our society if a concept like the capsule coffee machine even exists in the first place?

I kindly suggest that Nespresso fans might now like to step outside and take a deep breath before reading on – seeing as I’ve felt a great need to update my original rant against coffee capsules.

Why? Because I still can’t get my head around how anyone can justify expensive mini portions of coffee in aluminum capsules – both to themselves and future generations.

I know, there are arguments aplenty.

“I don’t have time to make coffee in the morning!”

Yeah. But even cheap coffee makers now come with timers. Super-automatic espresso machines are able to be preprogrammed via app and can also make latte macchiato.

“But the coffee tastes so good!”

Arne enjoying a latte macchiato

Well, that’s the main thing. Fuck the environmental impact and mountains of trash!

“It’s not as expensive as everyone says!”

Yes, it is!

“Other preparation methods aren’t exactly super environmentally friendly either.”

That’s partly true, which is why we need to change our fundamental attitude. Coffee isn’t a staple food, but a luxury product.

“You’re a stupid, arrogant blogger jerk.”

Yada yada yada…

You can go ahead and throw all the insults in the world at me. But anyone who still has a capsule machine sitting in their kitchen in 2021 really should reconsider their beliefs. Urgently.

As part of this reality check, I’ll be happy to provide you with current figures and comparisons as well as some unshakeable reasons why coffee capsules are dead. Forever.

Coffee Consumption (in Germany): Full of Caffeine and Yet Still Sluggish

To put the capsule madness in perspective, let’s take a quick look at the coffee market. It faces one huge problem: the market price for green coffee has been falling for years, but the costs involved in roasting, marketing and the entire logistics related to getting the coffee bean from plant to cup have all increased.

Farmer holding ripe coffee cherries

Coffee consumption has simultaneously also increased worldwide, but unfortunately only to a rather modest extent.

According to the 2019 coffee report by Tchibo (Germany’s coffee market leader) and brand eins (a leading German business magazine), consumption increased by only 2.2 percent between 2015 and 2018. By comparison, the German consumption of mineral water rose by 5.3 percent in just one year, according to the German Mineral Water Information Centre (Informationszentrale Deutsches Mineralwasser).

This presents manufacturers with a difficult task: having to fight for a barely growing number of consumers in a sluggish market segment. There’s no way to differentiate the product either – coffee is always just coffee.

Yes, they are. The extraction of aluminum produces toxic red mud that cannot be further processed or broken down. The extraction of the base ore bauxite also results in deforestation. Every year, a mountain of aluminum trash of around 5,500 tons is produced that takes up to 200 years to decompose. All this for the completely unnecessary packaging used in an unnecessary preparation system.

A complex separation and analysis process is necessary to recycle aluminum, as not every alloy has the same handling process and value. Aluminum capsules should be properly disposed of in the recycling trash bin.

The price of capsule coffee is up to five times higher than the comparable bean price, depending on the brand. The coffee used in capsules is always "cheap" – since there’s little to no information about its origin or the situation of the coffee farmers.

How, then, do you stand out from the competition? Brand identity and marketing?

Coffee consumers don’t really care about that. Branding plays only a minor role, price is the more important lever. The customer is used to regularly buying their Folgers for $10 a 48-ounce tub on special from Walmart – so Dallmayr, Lavazza and other brands can’t cost much more either.

overview of different supermarket coffee brands

This slide down the price spiral can only be paused temporarily. What’s therefore needed is a way of selling coffee in a new context, that’s so attractive, that higher coffee prices aren’t a problem.

Ta-da! Introducing coffee capsules!

The George Effect: A Lesson in Profit Maximization

These problems in the coffee market are nothing new. That’s why Nespresso, a wholly owned subsidiary of Nestlé, came up with a clever idea as early as 1986:

To fill the same ground coffee usually sold as a bar into mini capsules, through which water is then pumped with a little extra pressure with the aid of a special machine!

Nespresso thereby promises to “enable anyone to create the perfect cup of espresso coffee” – just like a professional barista.

capsule coffee machine preparing coffee

But whereas baristas have to scramble around, their customers need only insert a capsule and press a button. This is so awesome that Nespresso can sell each capsule for about five times the normal price of coffee. Even decaf.

I-N-G-E-N-I-O-U-S!

The capsule machine isn’t the real revenue generator – just the vehicle for the continuous sale of the capsules themselves.

This so-called ‘lock-in’ effect is a trick widely used in business: sell the device as cheaply as possible, but the necessary accessories as expensively as possible. You’ll know this from printers. Since at first there were no equivalent alternatives, sales were initially assured.

But this alone certainly wouldn’t have been enough for Nespresso to spark a revolution and compete with espresso.

Thank goodness for George Clooney!

Even though this brown-eyed stud is merely a brand ambassador, he’s decisively shaped Nespresso’s image: luxury, exclusivity, enjoyment, sophistication, a dash of Italy (but not too much) and complete indulgence.

Would the Cloon fold a filter and spoon Folgers into a Melitta machine? No. He selects a beautifully designed coffee capsule – to match his cufflinks – presses a button and following some supping, seduces the damsel in the tight dress.

This luxury fantasy was further fueled by the fact that Nespresso couldn’t be found in the hypermarkets on the outskirts of town, but instead only in their own boutique stores from London to New York, where ornaments made of capsules were displayed on the wall.

overview of small espresso machines with barista Arne

Of course, the trend towards single-person households and the fact that, for them, it’s not worth making a whole pot of coffee, have also played a role. Portafilter machines aren’t really an alternative because they’re too complicated, expensive and labor intensive.

The modern power man has no time to brew – he has to make money, buy cars and seduce the ladies!

In any case, thanks to Nespresso espresso, a completely absurd paradigm shift occurred: coffee suddenly became a luxury. But not because coffee itself was perceived as a luxury product. It was all down to the system concept built around it!

None of this is reprehensible in and of itself. I don’t care where people get their sense of luxury from. It’s none of my business what they spend their money on. What is concerning, however, are the downwind ramifications for us all.

F… You Planet: Aluminum Madness by the Ton

Aluminum takes between 80 and 200 years to break down. It’s made from bauxite, an ore found in the tropics. To get to the deposits, thousands of square meters of rainforest need to be cleared.

When aluminum is extracted from bauxite, the waste product red mud is produced. It cannot be processed any further, so has to be dumped somewhere – landfills and lakes are the most common sites. Once there, red mud immediately destroys everything that was once living.

If you want to find out more, you can read case studies on the social and environmental impacts of bauxite mining and aluminum production in Pará, Brazil, published by the German Federal Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt).

“What do I care about a puddle in the rainforest?”

Around 7 kilowatt hours of energy are required to extract just 1 pound of aluminum. The average German household consumes around 10 kilowatt hours per day – and that’s including absolutely everything.

„So what?!“

Each coffee capsule is comprised of around 0.035 ounces of aluminum.

“That’s basically nothing!”

Let’s assume you drink two single servings of capsule coffee a day, seven days a week. That generates 0.5 ounces of waste per week and 25.6 ounces a year.

“That’s not that much!”

In Germany alone, capsule consumption in 2018 was estimated to be about 3.5 billion capsules, according to the German Environmental Aid Association (Deutsche Umwelthilfe). That’s 385 tons of waste. It’s also estimated that the total annual worldwide volume of capsule waste is around 5,500 tons. All because of a single, pointless kitchen gadget.

Environmentally harmful coffee capsule aluminum

Is your guilty conscience stirring yet?

Of course, other preparation methods (unfortunately still) use aluminum bags for their coffee too. I took a look while at the wholesalers: a typical aluminum bag for a 1-pound pack of coffee weighs around 0.53 ounces.

This sucks too, which is why many decent roasters make sure to use aluminum-free bags for their beans. But even using coffee in aluminum bags, you’d hardly go through a whole pack – or even two – in one day.

Taking the average coffee amount per Nespresso capsule of around 5 grams (0.18 ounces), and using this same quantity during preparation, emptying such a large aluminum bag of coffee would take you about 50 days. That in turn would add up to a pile of 3.86 ounces of aluminum trash every year.

“But I recycle my capsules!”

Aluminum and recycling are a hot topic. Although the recovery quotas and recycling rates for aluminum are very high (over 90 percent, depending on the statistical source), this only applies to certain industries – and only for certain alloys.

That’s because not all aluminum is the same and in order to ensure that the metal can be efficiently reused, it must first be carefully separated from other recyclable materials. Moreover, because of the different alloys, not every piece of aluminum packaging can be treated in the same way, without first being analyzed.

But: according to the German Federal Environment Agency, recycling aluminum saves up to 95 percent of energy when compared to that used in new production.

Those of you that really do carefully dispose of and recycle your capsules are real role models. But hands up if you have simply thrown a capsule into the normal household trash in the last seven days. Besides, wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to recycle something that we don’t really need anyway? Question for a friend…

By the way, I am aware there are capsules made of plastic too. We can gladly start a debate about unnecessary plastic packaging, the outcome, however, should already be obvious.

Still no reaction?

Let’s talk about money next!

What the Coffee in Nespresso Capsules Really Costs

Staunch capsule coffee fans don’t want to hear it, but with every press of their shiny machines, they’re actively flushing money down the toilet. A lot of money.

Any of the original capsules available online at Nespresso cost about $0.70 each. According to the company, that’s about $14 per 100 grams (3.5 oz). Let me put this price into perspective: that’s almost $64 per pound!

And making things clearer still: compared to that 48-ounce (3 lb) tub of Folgers on special from Walmart for $10, with Nespresso you’ll pay $192 for the same amount.

Even excellent single-origin or microlot coffees from a real roastery don’t usually cost that much! The average price of recommendable coffee beans, according to all the rules of the art of transparency, is about 25 to 40 dollars a pound.

Happy Coffee robusta coffee beans

This ludicrous calculation doesn’t get much better even if we look at popular “low-cost suppliers” for comparison. Gourmesso capsules cost $44.45 per pound, while the Rosso Café version costs $49.90 per pound.

Even though these prices are somewhat friendlier, you’re still paying for coffee which you don’t know the origin of or what conditions it’s being produced under.

Completely randomly, I chose to take a look at the Nespresso capsule named Ispirazione Palermo Kazaar. Written under ‘origin’ on the company website: “We picked four bold coffees in homage to the history of the city of Palermo for this blend”. Ah yes.

Nespresso Capsules on Sale: (Too) Slow to Rethink

If an exclusive system with luxury factor is suddenly no longer exclusive, that system has a problem. For a long time, Nespresso was the only capsule peddler on the market. But after various legal disputes, the company was up against it:

From Starbucks to Aldi and Segafredo to Tchibo, every company involved in coffee consumption brought its own capsule products onto the market. Some with, some without, a machine system. In the case of Dolce Gusto, a competitor was even emerged from within Nespresso’s own company.

What’s more, alternative portioned coffee systems and ideas were also developed: “more environmentally friendly” pads from Senseo and co. (because they’re compostable), different sized capsules, refillable tabs etc.

Because from this time onwards L’OR capsules were available in the discount store around the corner at well below Nespresso prices, there was no longer any reason to make the pilgrimage to a boutique in Los Angeles or New York either.

Then, at some point, customers suddenly realized just how tedious coffee capsules really are.

Jura Z8 super-automatic espresso machine Arne drinking espresso

That’s because only a very meagre amount of coffee can be extracted from each one and there are hardly any possibilities to mix things up. The triumphant advance of super-automatic espresso machines was therefore also to some extent a consequence of capsule fatigue. Every super-automatic machine review conducted proves that this machine category does more for less money – even when using the best and most expensive coffee beans!

Fostering a “Green” Image With Coffee Capsules: A Brief Introduction

It must be seen as progress that there are now compostable and reusable coffee capsules available. Even from the likes of Nespresso, Tassimo and co.

The bad news: “biodegradable capsules” made of compostable plastic aren’t able to be disposed of in the organic waste bin. As investigated by the German Environmental Aid Association, they don’t properly break down and thus endanger the quality of the compost.

Capsules that you can fill yourself make a bit more sense.

I just ask: doesn’t all that fiddling around make it even clearer just how stupid this preparation method is to begin with?

Do you freshly grind the coffee (if so, to which grind size?) or do you just spoon in the Folgers or even some Néscafe? And are the cup results just as “good” as with the original aluminum capsules?

At the end of the day, refill options are likewise also just a solution to a problem that nobody should even really have. Better to make a super-automatic machine or entry-level portafilter your go-to instead.

Overview of coffee preparation methods with barista Arne

That leads me to an argument that capsule fans defend tooth and nail: that other coffee preparation methods are also energy intensive, coffee beans themselves are an environmental burden, etc. etc.

YES! E-X-A-C-T-L-Y!

We need to stop seeing coffee as a basic right!

Coffee is a damn luxury product that we shouldn’t be consuming in bulk, only in moderation!

Finished espresso close-up

If you know that coffee is not exactly environmentally friendly, why dump more manure on the pile with your capsule shit? Without any compulsion or comprehensible reason?

Take a deep breath. Collect yourself. Calm down.

I’ll certainly never become a capsule proponent, but I’d be happy to discuss this subject further with you. Clear the ring and let rip in the comments section!

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