How to make returnable coffee packaging work for you

Janice Kanniah
September 28, 2023
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Of the many solutions being trialled to curb the pollution problem, returnable coffee packaging has become a popular option. Notably, it’s estimated the value of the returnable packaging market will exceed $170 billion by the end of the decade.

Most of this growth is likely to be driven by brands wanting to operate more sustainably. This is due to increased consumer demand for eco-friendly production practices, products, and packaging. Additionally, governments are introducing laws incentivising businesses to switch to sustainable packaging while penalising those that don’t. 

As a result, several brands are making sustainable packaging commitments or declaring their intentions to integrate more recyclable or reusable materials. However, many of these businesses are large and established enough to invest in the transformation process. 

So where does this leave small to medium specialty coffee roasters who want to offer returnable packaging — and is it a feasible option? I spoke to Shae Macnamara, Founder & CEO of Indonesia’s Expat. Roasters to find out.

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What is returnable coffee packaging?

Returnable packaging is any form of packaging that can be returned to the business for reuse or refilling. It usually replaces single-use cardboard or plastic boxes and envelopes, which often end up in landfills and are rarely recycled after disposal. Reusable packaging materials are durable, robust, and can be used multiple times before disposal. This helps reduce their environmental impact.

There are many advantages to using returnable packaging. For instance, it can regulate and streamline the flow of coffee being ordered and roasted. For specialty coffee roasters who sell via ecommerce, returnable packaging may also help reduce shipping costs.

As tracking technology advances, it is likely to become easier and more feasible for small businesses to track product returns. In some cases, it may even help them automate time-consuming functions and produce actionable data for future insights. 

This can make the return process less complex and time-consuming. More so, it ensures packaging ends up in the right location and is properly stored without being damaged or stolen in transit. 

Research indicates customers respond to and make use of returnable packaging when it is available. Notably, in one study, 53% of respondents admitted they’d be more likely to buy from a brand offering products in returnable packaging. 

Expat. Roasters currently offers its customers several avenues to access its returnable coffee packaging. “Offering customers returnable and refillable coffee cans helps reduce single-use plastic waste while conserving resources,” says Shae, who has also worked as a barista and coffee consultant. 

“Over time, returnable coffee packaging could be more cost-effective for businesses. Integrating this option has helped our brand demonstrate a commitment to sustainability that attracts eco-conscious customers.” 

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Adopting returnable coffee packaging

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation switching 20% of traditional plastic packaging to reusable options can save the industry around $10 billion in material costs. 

Essentially, this can be done by investing in branded, reusable containers customers can borrow. Additionally, it can mean having customers purchase these containers themselves or partnering with a third party that manages the entire process.

Either option works well for products that can be ordered online and delivered to customers, or refilled at a designated location. If this option allows customers to purchase unique product volumes, it may lead to increased sales for retailers while saving costs for customers. 

Shae explains Expat. Roasters decided to pursue more sustainable coffee packaging options in 2019 as part of its Good Coffee All Around campaign. Currently, the brand offers customers a combination of reusable coffee packaging options. 

The brand has switched from traditional foil-lined packaging to 100% reusable coffee tins. “We supply our wholesale partners with 2 kg tins filled with coffee. These tins are reused an average of five times before being recycled or upcycled,” Shae says. 

“Our retail outlets sell 200g tins that can be refilled or swapped at any of our brew bar outlets,” he adds. “Plus, we’ve partnered with hotels for ‘in-room coffee menus’ that provide guests with reusable, single-serve tins that get refilled daily,” he says.

While this option works for Expat. Roasters, there have been challenges. For instance, Shae explains the brand has the advantage of controlling its own distribution channel. As it serves a limited and local market, the brands’ freight costs are low. 

Therefore, he cautions that specialty coffee roasters wanting to adopt a reusable packaging programme could face high upfront durable packaging investment costs. More so, the packaging may require a specialised collecting, cleaning and redistributing system. 

Beyond this, it may also necessitate more transport and storage space than what’s available or require a robust cleaning system to keep containers hygienically clean between uses. 

Therefore, before implementing such a programme, coffee roasters must ensure they can facilitate the offering in a practical manner. This means having staff members on hand to help with product inspection, refills, measuring, and weighing. 

Specialty coffee roasters will also need to communicate if their pricing model changes. Plus, they must convey that the containers being used are approved by local health authorities and minimise chances of cross-contamination.

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What to consider

“Adopting reusable packaging in a coffee roasting business is a commendable step towards sustainability and environmental responsibility,” Shae says. “My advice would be that any small change will make an impact, so get started immediately. 

“I truly believe that any steps taken towards sustainability in your business will result in a win-win situation. These steps can ensure you are not only having a positive environmental impact but also benefiting from reduced costs and a great marketing tool.” 

As specialty coffee packaging experts, MTPak Coffee can help you explore all your packaging options, whether returnable or single-use. Our coffee packaging solutions offer high-barrier protection, while being made from biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable materials that will help reduce your carbon footprint. 

Our line of coffee packaging options is made from renewable materials, such as compostable kraft paper, and rice paper, as well as multilayer LDPE coffee bags with an environmentally friendly PLA lining, all of which minimise waste and contribute to a circular economy.

More so, our stand-up bags, flat-bottom pouches, and side-gusset bags can be fitted with resealable, recyclable zippers. Our spout boxes can be made from corrugated board or kraft paper, and when fitted with our recyclable spout, are completely recyclable. 

Our paper tubes are the perfect option for those looking to create a unique and personalised packaging experience for their customers. Our paper tubes are specifically designed to protect and add value to rare, microlot, and ultra-specialty coffees.

Images by Expat. Roasters

For more information on returnable coffee packaging, contact our team.

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