Jay CabozBy Jay Caboz|April 13, 2022|13 Minutes|In Opinion


How to stop your morning coffee from killing the planet

A trio of entrepreneurs drawn together in Africa by a love of coffee believe theyve found a way to stop its leftovers from destroying the planet.

There’s nothing like a good cup of coffee in the morning. The roasted aroma of beans and the dark heat that lies beneath. But what about the aluminium and dead grains that help you make it? A bunch of entrepreneurs think they’ve found a way to make money out of getting rid of it without damaging the planet.

The aroma that hits you before you walk through the office door tells you exactly who you are dealing with. They are brothers Daniel and Oliver Pretorius and their cousin Lulu Larché who start every day with a strong roast.

“We’re coffee snobs who love the planet. We wanted to know if we use something as small as a little pod, could we shift consciousness when it comes to what they use and where it lands at,” says Larché, co-founder 4WKS Coffee.

It all began in 2018. When the trio were shocked to find out how wasteful the coffee industry could be. They found out that people throw away 56 billion plastic and aluminium capsules (also known as pods that go into your Nespresso machines) around the world in a year – that’s enough to give seven to each person on the planet to get rid of. Instead of that they end up in rubbish dumps and take up to 500 years to decompose.

This mountain of thrown away coffee pods was enough to convince the trio to start up a business to try to turn this waste into compost one pod at a time.

“We recognised the brilliance of Nespresso and how it meets the need for convenience: to enjoy an espresso anywhere, anytime and at the push of a button — at home, on holiday, in the office. But single-use plastic and aluminium pods are wasteful, unsustainable, and killing the only home we have,” says the team.

This was the birth of 4WKS coffee, so named because that’s how many weeks from roaster to shot coffee stays fresh in a pod. Since 2019 the company has made pods that turn to compost in just three months.

“We love coffee. We love the environment. We love that we, as a family, are very conscious about waste. So, it seemed like an amazing opportunity to take it further,” says

The pods have been designed to work specifically with most Nespresso machines, barring the fully automated ones.  Everything from their pods’ plant-based biomaterial shell to its vegetable fibre lid and edible ink branding is compostable.

The pods are filled with some of the best Cape Town coffee: from Deluxe Coffeeworks; Father Coffee; Naked Coffee; Rosetta Roastery; Truth Coffee Roasting; and Terbodore Coffee Roasters.

“The opportunity, specifically with the capsule, is that the coffee that was available inside the capsule was traditionally over roasted or very bitter. And that was when we thought from a coffee snob background, why can’t you get your local favourite roaster inside the capsule?” says Oliver.

“It’s been phenomenal to work with them and be able to take their coffee and put it into a compostable capsule that you can enjoy. We wanted to use packaging as a vehicle for change, to encourage transparency in the system and to encourage people — from roasters to coffee lovers — to come together to do better,” says Larché.

The start of their journey goes back to 2014, when Daniel and Oliver’s father (and Larché’s uncle), discovered a home-compostable pod made from bagasse, sugarcane waste.

It took several years, in between finishing degrees and wandering the world job hunting, to let the idea simmer before eventually they decided to turn it into a business.

The inspiration came in Greece. The brothers were on a family holiday in the picturesque island of Paxos. On the eve of their mothers 50th birthday; overlooking the Mediterranean and sipping iced coffees. Across the table they decided to risk it all.

“It was literally there, you know, Oliver and I and my dad had found this machine overseas that we could use as a prototype machine, which is what we have in the office at the moment. And yeah, we basically three of us decided that we would use a little bit of savings that we had put together to import this machine from Italy,” says Daniel.

When they got back to South Africa the first thing they did was get their hands on the encapsulator machine. From the garage of their father’s home in Paarl they set about making the pod shells from bagasse.

“We didn’t know what the product was going to look like. We didn’t know what we were going to put inside the capsule whether it was going to be coffee, or rooibos. We actually didn’t even know what the capsule shell was going to look like. But what we did know is that this machine would be able to take a capsule shell that was Nespresso compatible, fill it with coffee and see that. And so that’s really where the journey started,” says Daniel.

This was when they brought in their cousin Larche, who was working as a business strategist, to bring it all together.

“It was a quiet January period and I had a little bit of capacity. I said to Dan, this is what I do for a living I’ll help you come up with a name. We had a great time brainstorming and I was so passionate about it. I also come from a coffee background. I was part of the team that started RED ESPRESSO many years ago, so I’m familiar with the food and beverage kind of a space,” says Larché.

The road to shifting people’s wasteful habits hasn’t been easy. One of those challenges was coming up with a way to make the capsules compostable and as it turned out sugarcane waste wasn’t an ideal material for the pod’s shell.

“When we launched our bagasse pod, the coffee didn’t taste as strong as you’d want it to and sometimes it would work. It was like an avocado, sometimes you get a ripe avo and sometimes you don’t.”

The team shelved bagasse and turned to a plant-based biomaterial shell made from corn starch instead, at least until they grew the fledgling business beyond selling pods on the weekend from a small stall at the Oranjezicht City Farm Market, in Cape Town.

“We launched in November 2019. Dan, and I and Oli standing there every Saturday and Sunday selling our pods,”

From small pods a mighty business can grow. But no manner of growth could stand up to March 2020 when Covid-19 lockdowns hit. Without a market to sell in, the trio went online and started home deliveries.

“Literally in a space of 24 hours, we drew up a google form and told people to place their orders. We literally drove around Cape Town once a week and home-dropped pods and little handwritten notes.”

A year later they were delivering coffee nationwide. In August 2021, 4WKS moved into a factory full of buckets of compostable pods in the trendy coffee drinking suburb of Woodstock, in Cape Town.

“Sustainability is not a straight road. And we’d have to be okay with the curves and knowing where we want to go and making sure that each day, each week, we are inching a bit further,” says Larché.

Once used, the pods can be sealed in a compostable pouch and can be dropped off at one of seven compost collection points in the Western Cape.

“The entire thing will compost in three months in a commercial composting environment. In a home composting environment, collaborating with Earthprobiotics to do some rigorous tests in terms of how it breaks down, it will break down but it will require a little bit more patience. So it will potentially take double the time six months,” says Larché.

A partnership with composting facility Ywaste in the Western Cape ensures that all pods go into compost, or you can do it yourself at home.

“It starts to embed this kind of thinking at the source and, in reducing contamination, is the first step in ensuring that waste is being treated in a way in which it’s not wasted but turned into something valuable.” Emile Fourie, owner of Ywaste.

This will go a long way toward the fight against waste in South Africa. The country generates more than 122 million tons of waste a year, equating to roughly R25.2 billion into landfill sites that are filled to the brim. Almost 40% of all waste that does end up in South African landfills is organic and could be composted, a mere 10% of it is recycled.

As a response to this, and to landfills increasingly running out of airspace, the Western Cape provincial (as well as national) government has passed new legislation requiring a 50% reduction (or ban) of organic waste from landfills by 2022 and a 100% diversion by 2027.

“With 4WKS we really hope that your morning coffee routine of putting a capsule in your machine, extracting something which was encapsulated locally and fresh, and then disposing of it in organic waste can really be a catalyst, or a way to encourage people to, take responsibility on how they dispose of other things, which they consume,” says Daniel.

Time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Nespresso, in turn, have also made efforts to reduce their impact on the environment. They now run a recycling programme of their own in more than 30 countries. Old pods can be dropped off at recycling bins in Nespresso boutiques as well as malls in some major cities.The recycled aluminium is processed and turned into pens, bikes and even new capsules.