In May 2023, Firelight Coffee Roasters launched its coffee bag return programme in order to make it easier for retail customers to minimise their packaging waste. As a finalist for the 2023 Circular Economy Grant, Tim Whitson, the director at Firelight Coffee, explains how this initiative ties into the company’s vision for a more sustainable coffee industry.
When it comes to coffee packaging, Firelight Coffee Roasters has a fresh and unique design – a noticeable achievement for a brand that will reach the decade-long milestone in January 2024.
Looking back, Tim explains that in the beginning, Firelight was primarily about providing high-quality coffee. Then, after learning more about the impact of the industry, he says the team “recognised the need for intentional sustainability within specialty coffee.”
The spark behind Firelight Coffee
The risks for coffee production are becoming well-known across the industry. For instance, the Inter-American Development Bank published a study that forecasts a 50% reduction of suitable land for coffee production by 2050 if global temperatures keep rising.
“Quite frankly, that’s not a future we want to live in,” Tim says. “We want to live in a future where specialty coffee is getting better and better every year.” In this regard, Firelight packaging aims to reflect this vision.
“We intentionally went with a feel of nature, making sure we convey this idea of the abundance of nature and what’s around us.”
The front of each custom-printed side gusset coffee bag features a small figure sitting beside a fire. The figure is surrounded by trees, waterfalls, and mountains. This aims to represent a sustainable future where people can enjoy nature’s abundance and beauty from different standpoints.
More so, Tim explains the packaging design tries to express an idea of the future that firelight Coffee wants to see. “We want to see every farm we work with get better from year to year. We want to see every importer we work with become more successful, and we ultimately want to see our customers thrive in a more sustainable world.”
Launching a coffee bag return programme
In its infancy, the brand considered composting to reduce coffee packaging waste. However, that put most of the work on customers, who would need a composting heap at home in order for it to be an effective solution.
Therefore, Firelight’s coffee packaging is fully recyclable. That said, only certain facilities can process these materials, specifically low-density polyethylene (LDPE) #4 plastics. This is why the brand recently launched its Send Back Recycle Pack.
The pack allows customers to return empty coffee bags so that Firelight can distribute them to the appropriate recycling facilities. This is a convenient solution for customers who don’t live near recycling facilities capable of processing this kind of plastic.
The first challenge when implementing this programme was finding the simplest way for customers to return empty coffee bags to Firelight.
“We’ve discovered an effective solution through the US Postal Service,” Tim says. “We’re able to print return labels, similar to those received when customers order clothes and need to return them at a later date.”
Tim further explains the challenges around logistics. “We had to determine how many coffee bags we should encourage people to compost or send back. For instance, the shipping can be quite expensive if a customer returns one empty bag.
“So, the challenge was finding that sweet spot. Obviously, we want customers to send back more than one bag, but we also don’t want the return package to be too heavy because then we can no longer use the postal service programme.”
Through some trial and error, Firelight determined consumers should aim to return between 10 and 20 empty coffee bags per envelope. According to Tim, this is a good range for subscribers who get Firelight coffee on a weekly basis.
The brand has also been looking for ways to improve its coffee bag return programme. The next step, Tim explains, is creating an incentive programme. “We want to reward customers who buy our coffee and send the bags back, as well as those who can prove they’re recycling the bags themselves.”
Currently, Firelight Coffee’s Send Back Recycle Pack is free for customers who order three or more bags of coffee. As the programme is relatively new, there are numerous opportunities for the brand to improve and build on it.
“The biggest impact it has had so far has been on our internal team,” says Tim. “They’ve repeatedly told us how proud they are to work with a company that is actively trying to provide a solution to advance sustainability.”
Looking to the future of specialty coffee
“In the next 10 years, every company is going to be held to account for the full life of those products,” Tim believes. “As well as whether they can be recycled, returned, or reused.” This is why he thinks it’s essential for brands to learn about their product’s environmental impact and set a baseline to improve operations.
“The very first step for most organisations is starting to understand how your operations already affect both your local environment and the greater environment,” he adds. “Until you start tracking these things, you’re not going to know what to change.”
Tim explains this may look like businesses weighing their trash each day before taking it out. “This can help determine how much trash you actually produce – particularly that going into a landfill. If you have a small recycling programme, weigh that and see how much you’re actually recycling. And do the same with composting.”
To further promote a sustainable specialty coffee industry, Firelight Coffee aims to share its experiences and expertise with others. The aim is to empower and aid other businesses to become more sustainable across the board.
Once it has established a repeatable and effective system, the brand aims to launch Firelight Zero Waste Consulting. “We aim to partner with people who are really in it to find the most sustainable solutions for coffee packaging. We would be able to work alongside them and provide insight from what we’ve learned. More so, we’ll be able to learn alongside them for the best solutions we can all provide for our customers.”
Get to know the finalists of the MTPak Coffee Circular Economy Grant. Read our exclusive interview with the owners of Anticonquista Café, Elmer Fajardo Pacheco and Lauren Reese, as they explain the brand’s closed-loop cold brew coffee bottle exchange programme.
Images from Firelight Coffee Roasters