Is That Aluminium In Your Favourite Coffee Capsule Eco Friendly?

It's probably not something one thinks about overly much but when you pop that coffee capsule into your coffee maker first thing in the morning, and at periodic intervals throughout the day, have you considered the carbon footprint just that small action leaves? It's not just about the coffee itself, which may or may not have been sourced from sustainable coffee plantations. It's also about the material the coffee capsules are made from, which is aluminium (and plastic). According to some sources there are 39,000 of these capsules produced every minute!  Coffee addicts around the globe then use them in the millions (if not billions) on a daily basis.  Most of the used ones subsequently end up in landfill as they are very difficult to recycle, but that's another story entirely. 

This story is about the aluminium they're made from. Traditional aluminium smelters are very energy intensive, which means they're also heavy contributors to greenhouse gas emissions via their power consumption ie around three quarters of those emissions are courtesy of the electricity they use. The balance of their emissions comes from the smelting and other onsite running processes. So – those millions of single use coffee capsules being popped into coffee makers daily the world over are contributing to global warming!

However, if you're a fan of coffee ala Nespresso style, you'll be interested to know that your favourite coffee maker has partnered up with one of the world's leading miners to produce sustainably manufactured coffee capsules! Or at least the aluminium in them will be…. The coffee giant has committed to using 100% sustainable aluminium in 100% of its popular coffee capsules by 2020 and is well on the way to achieving that goal. Incidentally, Nespresso was also one of the first coffee companies to introduce a recycling program for their own used coffee capsules in order to reduce the number going into landfill.

They are also one of a number of coffee companies who have jumped on board the concept of using sustainable and ethically produced materials in the manufacture of their products. The trend comes as more and more consumers pay attention to how the products they use, and consume, are produced. Many coffee companies already source their coffee from ethical coffee plantations and putting it into similarly ethical containers ie capsules is a logical progression.

It's all been made possible by the ASI, or Aluminium Stewardship Initiative. This is a set of standards that serves to protect the rights of indigenous peoples involved in the production chain along with promoting biodiversity, sustainable water management, and of course low-carbon emissions. According to the ASI's website, the standard addresses:

  • Business integrity
  • Policy and management
  • Transparency
  • Material stewardship

  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Emissions, effluents and wastes
  • Water
  • Biodiversity

  • Human rights
  • Labour rights
  • Occupational health and safety

ASI certified aluminium products must be mined, and then manufactured by ASI-certified producers at every stage. This provides coffee companies, and indeed any other industry that wants to use sustainable aluminium, with a guarantee that their aluminium has been ethically produced from source to end product. Rio Tinto is the first miner to supply responsibly sourced aluminium and the partnership with Nespresso will enable the coffee manufacturer to meet their 2020 commitment to help coffee fans reduce their carbon footprint.

In order to produce an environmentally and eco friendly metal on a large scale, Rio Tinto has joined forces with Alcoa (and Apple!) to expand Alcoa's patent protected aluminium smelting process. The groundbreaking process produces oxygen as a by-product, thus completely removing all direct greenhouse gas emissions. If the smelters are also powered by renewable energy sources, the result will be a totally carbonless smelter process both directly and indirectly.

Apple of course is keenly interested in the carbonless smelting process because they too have committed to ensuring that all the raw materials used to produce the myriad of components in their products are sustainably sourced and manufactured. They're also providing technical support for the venture as well as investing C$13 million cash into it.

Cup of environmentally friendly Nespresso anyone?

However, the fact does remain that China is the world's largest aluminium producer by far and is only just starting to sit up and take notice of criticism about its poor environmental record. On the plus side though – if any country has the ability to rapidly and effectively clean up its act, it's China.

Finally, for those who thought coffee pods and coffee capsules are one and the same – they're not! Coffee pods are a coffee version of the ubiquitous teabag so not the same thing at all.
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