Nespresso and UNSW SMaRT Centre find new benefits for aluminium-based food packaging

A scientific research collaboration between Nespresso Australia and the UNSW SMaRT Centre has discovered valuable new uses for recycled aluminium. 

Conducted as part of the ARC Green Manufacturing Research Hub hosted by the SMaRT (Sustainable Materials Research and Technology) Centre, the breakthrough research holds promise to provide a boost to Australia’s aluminium recycling and smelting sectors. 

Hub and SMaRT Centre Director, Professor Veena Sahajwalla said the finding brings to an end the Green Manufacturing Research Hub after five years, and will be subject to further investigations from SMaRT with support from Nespresso. 

“For the first time, we have demonstrated that using waste food packaging containing aluminium, such as chip packets and spent coffee capsules, can become a useful resource in the steelmaking process,” Veena said. 

Marta Fernandes, Technical and Quality Manager Nespresso Australia and Oceania, said: “This collaboration aligns with Nespresso’s commitment to circularity and looking for ways to help keep waste materials in use for as long as possible. It demonstrates our existing investment in building a local recycling scheme that has enabled all of our customers in Australia, both residential and business, to recycle their used Nespresso aluminium capsules via more than 19,000 collection points, with four different options to make it as easy as possible for customer to recycle. 

“Recycling and helping to find circular outcomes for waste materials are a big part of the company’s broader sustainability efforts, which include bringing capsules made from 80% recycled aluminium to the Australian market, sourcing over 94% of coffee through its AAA Sustainable Quality™ program and committing to be fully carbon neutral by 2022. We are proud to be continuing our research collaboration with Veena and her UNSW SMaRT Centre team because there is even more we can achieve.” 

Veena said: “Our multi-material waste containing aluminium could be useful in steel making. This type of quality waste material, not subject to conventional recycling, could be transformed into a resource, suitable for the chemical reactions needed to remove oxygen in steelmaking process.” 

“Finding a way to provide a new life for polymer-laminated aluminium packaging (PLAP) materials in steel making is very exciting and we look forward to new collaborations with Nespresso in the future to advance this and other aluminium recycling breakthroughs.” 

Maximising the value of recycled materials is a key pillar of the circular economy, which Nespresso is committed to supporting.  It has established its own onshore recycling scheme that already recovers the aluminium from capsules for use in industry.  

The SMaRT Centre develops novel research for sustainable materials and manufacturing processes. The Centre also builds industry partnerships to apply research to real world applications and disseminates both green materials and manufacturing technologies that benefit industries, local communities, and enhance sustainable economic growth. One of the Centre’s key successes has been commercialising technology to create green steel.  

Veena said: “The benefits of using discarded waste PLAP materials provides a wonderful solution for food and coffee packaging. We now know from this research that this waste material is an under-valued resource.” 

Marta said: “We care deeply about every capsule sold in Australia being recycled.  That’s why we set up our own scheme here in Australia and have four options to make is as easy as possible for customers to recycle their capsules.  

“Once they have been recycled, we want the aluminium to be of the highest value in line with the objectives of creating a circular economy.  What Professor Veena and her team have done is hugely promising and could further strengthen our recycling efforts in the future.  

“Aluminium is the ideal material for capsules as it maintains coffee freshness and is infinitely recyclable.” 

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Written by Kevin Gambrill