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You Can Just Recycle It, Right?

For the past year or so I’ve been drinking more and more coffee, yet it’s not because I’m crunching books for exams, but because I started enjoying the taste a lot more. Right now I’m using a moka pot, and the only ‘waste’ product you get at the end is the grounds themselves that you can actually turn into plant fertiliser.

As I started to try different blends and beans, I was also looking at alternative ways to make coffee. One method that’s getting really trendy right now, partially thanks to Mr Clooney, is Nespresso. The way it works is similar to an espresso machine, which forces water through a tamped-down filter full of ground coffee at high pressure (often roughly 8-12 times the atmospheric pressure). The difference from a regular espresso machine is that the pressure is lower, and instead of using ground coffee directly, you use single-serving coffee pods. Those small pods give you exactly one shot of espresso each. I was very surprised to find out about this, not because it makes inefficient use of coffee grounds, but because the leftover aluminum and plastic mix pods are most often not recycled at all.

This was sort of a wake-up call for me, as I started noticing many more cases of outright ridiculous packaging practices. One that’s struck me was two dates, individually wrapped in paper, wrapped in clear cellophane and a carton base. For a mere couple of dates, that’s three individual components that must be recycled! I don’t know who that product targeted, but finding it in Marqt, an eco-friendly supermarket, made it even more ironic.

After doing some research, I found that the two central issues about the recycling of packaging material are:

First, these materials are getting more and more complicated due to mixing several forms of base materials (paper, cotton, numerous distinct forms of plastics, metals, glass). This makes it very difficult to recycle them as the separation processes get more complex and costly. It also leads to people trashing them instead of taking the effort to recycle them properly—compare a plastic and tin foil mix packaging for aspirin, versus a plain beer bottle; which one is easier to recycle from the recycling plant’s and consumer’s perspective? Bottle wins on both terms.

A nine-bin system introduced by the authority of Newcastle-under-Lyme, with many others following them at 6-7, has faced significant criticism because it makes it confusing for people to recycle by complicating the system further than what’s necessary. Even though the authority has commented by saying that the system is not mandatory and that it increased recycling rates from 27% to 50%, it increases the complexity for potential recyclers and puts in a ‘barrier of entry’ against them. The takeaway from this is not that recycling systems should not get more complex because it confuses people, but that in the future these systems may have to get more complex…

Second, recycling doesn’t get you the raw materials back completely. Even coffee pods made out of 100% aluminum are still wasting a considerable amount of dye at the Nespresso scale of production. The issue is even more complex with plastics, which yield low-quality plastics when different types polymers are mixed. On top of that, the dyeing agents used in plastics are practically inseparable from the end result.

Fortunately, materials like paper and glass have it easier. For paper, even though the ink on it is lost, the processes involved result in pulp that is very similar to what is used in the first place. One ton of newspaper saves about one ton of wood, whereas one ton of white printing paper saves about two. Most importantly, the energy used in order to recycle paper that has already been used is significantly less than creating paper from wood, meaning that the savings are not solely on the raw material basis. Glass, although it has high recyclability, does not benefit from such high levels of energy savings.

Tying into the first point, as we start finding better methods of recycling individual materials we will need consumers to be a lot more informed about their role in the chain. As long as we are not improving the methods of separation, which are becoming more difficult to research and execute, the consumers are mainly responsible for separating their waste into the appropriate bins. This may end up making it harder for consumers when the separation is more nuanced, but a change of culture is critically needed on this matter. If we want to increase the efficiency of pre-existing recycling processes, separation seems to be key.

Ultimately, I also think that Piotr Barczak, waste policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau, poses the best approach very well: “The point with coffee pods isn’t about recycling – it’s about cutting down on the amount of stuff that we need to throw away or recycle. … Recycling should be the last resort when tackling waste, not the immediate solution.” No matter how conscious and efficient we are about recycling our waste packaging materials, taking the extra step by going for alternatives that are less wasteful and preferring companies who are taking this matter seriously is always a good idea for environmental sustainability.


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