Creating furniture from coffee packaging waste

Sam Shipiti
October 26, 2023
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Across the globe, people with disabilities face many challenges, including underemployment and exclusion. However, one specialty coffee brand in Singapore aims to change that by using coffee packaging waste as a vehicle for positive change. 

In Singapore, only 31.4% of the working-age population with disabilities were employed in 2022. This left around 3% jobless and searching for opportunities, while 65.7% were excluded from the workforce for various reasons.

In 2017, Foreword Coffee was launched with a single purpose: to help those with disabilities discover their potential and build on it. 

I spoke with Lim Wei Jie, the director and co-founder of Foreword Coffee about how the brand supports smallholder farmers throughout Asia, encourages conscious consumption, and upcycles its coffee packaging waste. 

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The specialty coffee roasters helping people with disabilities

Notably, Singapore has been at the forefront of supporting a more inclusive society. In recent years, the push has been more aggressive, culminating in the creation of The Enabling Masterplan 2030 (EMP2030). This serves as a roadmap that sets out the country’s vision for inclusivity.

Part of this strategy includes initiatives for employers that are aimed at driving the country towards realising this goal. By 2030, the country hopes to raise the employment rate for people with disabilities to 40%. 

Forword Coffee is well on its way to taking the lead in this ambitious endeavour. “Over 80% of our total company workforce comprises people with various disabilities and mental health needs,” explains Lim. “These include cerebral palsy, autism, mild intellectual disability, and deafness.”  

This is encouraging, especially considering that a few years ago, only one in 10 people with disabilities could secure work in the open market. This striking observation was made in a research paper commissioned by the Disabled People’s Association (DPA) in partnership with the Institute of Public Policy (IPS).

The study states a major reason for this was discrimination at work and during interviews. Despite their abilities and potential, respondents noted feelings of inferiority, resignation, or unworthiness as having a negative impact on their work morale and the pursuit of jobs. 

To counter the psychological effects of discrimination, Forword Coffee provides a nurturing work culture. More so, the brand has seen success through its initiative. “We track our impact by the number of employment opportunities created for them, the number of hours of training provided, and the amount of salary which we pay out to them.”

“Success to us is when their lives become more meaningful because of their work,” he adds. “The fact that they look forward to coming to work and enjoy what they are doing.” 

The brand’s commitment towards creating inclusive employment opportunities was recognised at the inaugural Enabling Mark Awards Ceremony where it received the highest accolade. 

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Supporting coffee farmers through a circular economy 

In 2021, Forword Coffee began to work towards creating a sustainable coffee supply chain. However, for Lim and the team, this mission extends beyond reducing the environmental footprint of coffee processing; it led them to establish a community fund.

“We set aside 5% of our sales generated from our coffee brew bags to community development projects that our coffee partners might be involved in,” he explains. Beyond this, the community fund also aims to uplift the livelihoods of coffee growers in Asia. 

“We’ve contributed to a project in Java where they were building a new wet mill to help process coffee cherries,” Lim adds. Even as the brand encourages more communities to tap into the fund, its goal remains clear.  

“We do this because we want to kick-start the idea of a circular economy for coffee, where part of the profits earned at the end of the coffee value chain go back to support the coffee producers at the start.” 

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Coffee packaging that advances sustainability

Research shows that packaging accounts for around 3% of the coffee supply chain’s total carbon footprint. Given this, several brands have switched to sustainable coffee packaging and adopted ways to repurpose coffee waste.

At Foreword Coffee, the design of the coffee bags is simple and cost-effective. After recognising the environmental threat posed by single-use packaging, the brand made a conscious decision to invest in recyclable and compostable materials. For example, it uses low-density polyethylene (LDPE) coffee bags, glass jars, lid-free BioPak takeaway coffee cups, and bagasse paper straws. 

“Our coffee bags are made from LDPE, which is recyclable in regular recycling bins in Singapore,” Lim explains. He adds the brand chose this material as it is highly effective at retaining the freshness of roasted coffee for up to 18 months. For its bottled coffee, the brand uses glass, as it is “infinitely recyclable and can be washed and reused many times without losing quality,” Lim adds.

Recently, Forward Coffee received the coveted B Corp certification, which is a testament to the brand’s significant social and environmental impact.

Repurposing coffee packaging waste into functional furniture

People worldwide generate over 2 billion tonnes of solid waste annually, according to recent studies. Furthermore, at least 33% of that solid waste is not managed in environmentally friendly ways. 

Lim explains that he observed a similar trend in his country. Statistics show that Singapore produced approximately 982,200 tons of plastic waste in 2021, with only 6% of the total being recycled. Within the global context, the coffee industry contributes to approximately 1.1% of the total waste, which is equivalent to over 23 million tonnes. Some of the waste includes coffee packaging. 

“Therefore, in 2021, we started collaborating with a startup that collects our used plastic milk bottles as part of their R&D process,” Lim explains. “They use this to create functional products.” 

One of the biggest problems Singapore faces in its efforts to protect the environment is plastic garbage. Lim notes that in 2022, Forword Coffee diverted over 4,000 plastic milk bottles and caps from their waste stream. This amounts to more than 800 kg of plastic waste saved and repurposed into furniture. 

Together with abandoned logs retrieved from trees cut down for urban construction, they have been able to create stunning furniture. “Our customers love our furniture, which is made from upcycled plastic waste. Many customers come in and take pretty Instagram photos with our coffee tables,” Lim says proudly. 

He concludes this by saying that “while our efforts may be small, they serve as an example of how we can play our part in protecting the environment.” 

At MTPak Coffee, we offer roasters and coffee shops a range of 100% sustainable coffee packaging options that can be custom-printed to your business specifications. 

Choose from renewable materials such as kraft paper, rice paper, or multilayer LDPE packaging with an environmentally friendly PLA lining, all of which minimise waste and contribute to a circular economy. 

Images from Foreword Coffee

For more information on custom-printed sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team

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Sam Shipiti
Sam Shipiti

Born and raised in Kenya, a country famous for growing top grade coffee, Sam’s unique perspective is deeply rooted in his heritage. His writing journey has seen him contribute to magazines and coffee blogs, and work for global marketing agencies, honing his craft and establishing a strong voice in the industry. He now focuses on uncovering the unique stories and innovations fuelling the specialty coffee revolution.

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