ZURICH: Nespresso is launching compostable coffee capsules next year in a bid to fend off competitors trying to muscle in on the lucrative home coffee market with ever-more eco-friendly alternatives.
One of Swiss food giant Nestle's flagship brands, Nespresso -- which makes home coffee machines, pods and accessories -- will launch paper-based capsules that can be composted at home "in France and Switzerland in 2023" before spreading out to other markets in 2024, Nespresso chief executive Guillaume Le Cunff told AFP.
Like the capsules announced earlier this month by Nescafe Dolce Gusto -- another Nestle brand -- a thin film of compostable biopolymer inside the paper seals in the coffee to keep it fresh.
Le Cunff said the new Nespresso capsules, which can be used in the brand's existing machines, will not replace aluminium pods but rather offer "an alternative" for those who want to compost their capsules rather than having to take them to recycling points or back to the shop.
"It's a complement. The objective is to offer the choice," he said.
It took three years of research to come up with the capsule, with developers going through 28 prototypes.
"We had to create coffees that work with this packaging. While the engineers were working on the packaging, our coffee experts were developing new coffees, working on the roasting and the grinding," said Le Cunff.
With 6.4 billion Swiss francs ($6.45 billion) of sales in 2021, Nespresso is the second-biggest coffee brand in the world behind stablemate Nescafe, and the biggest in western Europe, according to market researchers Euromonitor International.
"Nespresso remains the leader in the portioned coffee segment. However, there is more competition," Jon Cox, an industry analyst with the Kepler Cheuvreux financial services company, told AFP.
Other firms have already gone down the compostable route, such as US coffee specialist Keurig.
And in September, Switzerland's biggest retailer Migros unveiled 100 percent compostable balls of compressed coffee covered with a thin film made from algae.
The supermarket chain launched its CoffeeB pods, which require their own machine, in Switzerland and in France -- one of the largest Nespresso markets -- and will take on the German market next year.
The chain advanced environmental arguments, claiming that traditional aluminium pods generate around 100,000 tonnes of waste annually, much of which ends up in the garbage without being recycled.
Launched in 1986, Nespresso capsules revolutionised coffee consumption in Europe by making it possible to brew up an espresso at home.
Its success saw rivals quickly attempt to capitalise, triggering fierce court battles to try to stop others producing their own capsules that would work in Nespresso machines.
Environmental organisations are watching the battle for the compostable market with a cautious eye.
For Florian Kasser, Greenpeace Switzerland's consumer and circular economy expert, compostable alternatives are "a small step forward".
However, "the trouble with these innovations is that they give the impression that we can consume coffee without any environmental problems", he told AFP.
Kasser said they were generally going "in the wrong direction", because like meat or dairy products, coffee is among the foodstuffs with a "very bad ecological footprint", arguing it would be better "to reduce consumption" instead.
Larissa Copello, from the NGO Zero Waste, said consumers might wrongly infer that "if it composts in my backyard, then it may degrade in the countryside too", leading to littering.
Le Cunff said Nespresso would form an interest group bringing together public bodies, companies, NGOs and waste collectors to raise consumer awareness on composting.