I’m on a fabulously stylish purple seven-gear bicycle, made by a Swedish startup called Vélosophy. The bike epitomizes minimalist Scandinavian design, with clean lines and sleek wheels. You would never guess that it was made from 300 old aluminum Nespresso pods.
That said, if you take a closer look, there are a few clues that this bike was designed with a coffee addict in mind: The bell is shaped like a coffee capsule and there’s a coffee holder built into the wood basket. On a test ride around my neighborhood, I stop at my local bakery, get a cup of freshly brewed, single origin coffee to go, and take it with me on the rest of my trip. Biking caffeinated is way more fun.
This bike, cleverly called the Re:Cycle, is a special project between Vélosophy and Nespresso, and a limited quantity of them will be available on the Vélosophy website for about $1,450. Jimmy Östholm, founder and CEO of Vélosophy, was intrigued by the partnership because it allowed him to design a bicycle that would represent the possibilities of a circular economy—a world where we don’t use any new resources, but infinitely recycle the materials we already have. “I wanted to start a conversation about aluminum,” Östholm says. “I think many consumers are interested in knowing where their materials come from, but there is just less awareness about aluminum as, for example, plastic.”
While there’s growing consumer awareness around the world about how plastic is clogging up our landfills and oceans, prompting many brands to use recycled plastic and explain their sourcing to their customers, there hasn’t been as much discussion about the life cycle of aluminum.
Östholm has used recycled aluminum in his bicycles from the time he launched his company three years ago, but he says customers didn’t seem to care much about it. He’s hoping that talking about a bicycle made of coffee capsules that were once on people’s kitchen counters might be intriguing to his audience. “When I’m sourcing recycled aluminum, I don’t know what products the material used to be,” he says. “The difference now is that I know these used to be Nespresso pods, and [I] can share that with my customers.”
This isn’t the first time Nespresso has partnered with a brand to turn old pods into new products. Last year, the coffee company worked with the knife maker Victorinox to create Swiss army knives, and the French stationary brand Caran D’Ache to create a ballpoint pen. For the brands, the material offers a fun design challenge: Östholm, for instance, wanted to create a bike that offered subtle clues about its previous life. For instance, he picked the same purple as the color of the Nespresso Arpeggio capsule.
For Nespresso, these partnerships serve as an opportunity to remind customers to recycle the pods. In some cities, Nespresso capsules cannot go through the regular recycling system because their equipment is unable to sort through small, lightweight aluminum packaging. The company is working with some municipalities to change this: Through its work with the New York City Department of Sanitation, for instance, New Yorkers will be able to recycle their capsules through curbside recycling programs starting in the fall.
In places where standard recycling is not an option, Nespresso has customers stick the used pods in a free prepaid envelope, then drop them at any UPS location or Nespresso boutique. Nespresso works with an industrial recycler to separate the coffee grounds, which gets composted, from the aluminum pod, which gets melted down and used to make new products. It’s a process that requires Nespresso customers to take a few more steps to recycle their old pods—and we know that convenience is one of the strongest predictors of whether a consumer will participate in a recycling program. According to Nespresso’s most recent sustainability report, 24.6% of its capsules had been recycled in 2017, a slight increase from the year before. Guillaume Le Cunff, Nespresso USA’s president and CEO, hopes that offering tangible examples of what the pods could become will motivate customers to recycle. “With Vélosophy, we’ve transformed our capsules into a beautiful new bicycle,” he says. “With it, we hope to inspire more people to recycle.”
Part of the reason that consumers are more concerned about their plastic footprint than their aluminum footprint is that aluminum biodegrades in under a century, while it can take five times that long for plastic to break down. What many people don’t know is that mining raw aluminum from the earth, then manufacturing with it, is a very resource- and carbon-intensive process. Meanwhile, recycling existing aluminum only requires 5% of the original energy output. The Global Association of Aluminum Producers estimates that recycling post-consumer aluminum products, like beverage cans and foil packaging, saves 90 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and enough electrical energy to power the entire country of the Netherlands.
Yet, only 35% of all aluminum used in manufacturing is recycled. The main reason for this is that many consumers don’t go through the effort of putting their used aluminum products in the recycling bin, so it ends up in landfills. And because recycled aluminum is less commonly used, it takes more time and money to source, making it less attractive to price-driven manufacturers. The aluminum trade groups say that one of the main impediments to using recycled aluminum is simply getting hold of post-consumer waste. “[I]mproving the overall collection rates of used products is an essential element in the pursuit of sustainable development,” it says, in a report.
But some circularity experts say that brands should actually fall back on recycling as a last resort and focus their energies on eliminating single-use packaging first. In a new guide, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a sustainability nonprofit, urges brands to design packaging that can be used many times before it eventually reaches the end of its life. In the case of Nespresso, this might mean inventing durable aluminum pods that could be refilled with coffee grounds either at home or by sending them back. Reusable packaging is not very common right now, but it might be soon. A company called Loop is currently working with major brands like Haagen-Dazs, Hellmann’s, and Chameleon Cold Brew to develop sturdy stainless steel containers that customers can send back to be cleaned and refilled. Then, when the packaging is worn out beyond use, it can be thrown in the recycling bin.
As I pedal around my block in a purple bicycle made from old coffee pods, it’s particularly salient to me that metal has the miraculous ability to be infinitely recycled without losing any of its fundamental properties. Unlike fabrics and plastic, which are more complicated to recycle, recycling aluminum is relatively simple. At some point, when this bike reaches the end of its life, it too can be melted and transformed into something else. Perhaps even back into Nespresso capsules.