Coffee packaging return programmes: A pocket guide 

Tori Taylor
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February 27, 2024
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Several studies show the world is grappling with a growing pollution problem, and single-use plastics are primarily responsible for the waste. Notably, the amount of plastic waste produced globally is set to triple by 2060, with less than a fifth being recycled, according to a new OECD report. 

Beyond this, the report estimates that almost two-thirds of plastic waste in 2060 will be short-lived items such as packaging, low-cost products, and textiles. To prevent coffee packaging from contributing to this, several brands have adopted eco-friendly materials or implemented return programmes. 

So how does coffee packaging return programmes work? And how can businesses adapt them to fit their packaging structures? I spoke to Lauren Reese and Elmer Fajardo Pacheco from Anticonquista Café, as well as Tim Whitson from Firelight Coffee Roasters

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What is a coffee packaging return programme?

It’s estimated the world generates millions of tons of flexible packaging waste every year. Most of this is collected by residual general waste streams, typically called “kerbside recycling”.

As the name suggests, kerbside recycling helps to collect large volumes of packaging waste for recycling. However, many are limited by a lack of funding and unclear collection targets. This means they might only collect waste that can be processed nearby by a recycling facility or that which local recyclers will pay a good price for.

Alternatively, they might collect all waste, but face trouble sorting it. This makes it costly and time-consuming to recycle and less likely to produce a quality recycled material. Failing to sort it also means that insufficient volumes of a certain material type are present for recycling.

Coffee packaging collection programmes have been developed to mitigate the inefficiencies of existing recycling infrastructure, making it easier for the consumer. For instance, coffee roasters and cafes can incentivise the return of empty coffee packaging by setting up collection points. This enables the empty coffee bags to be sent to facilities that can effectively recycle less common forms of waste, decreasing the likelihood of recyclable materials ending in a landfill.

In essence, coffee packaging collection works to establish a circular economy, reducing the need to extract and refine new virgin materials from the planet. Coffee packaging return programmes, such as those offered by TerraCycle and Loop, are helping to light the way toward more effective recycling. 

A circular economy creates a perspective shift where the raw materials needed to produce the packaging arrive from the consumer through returned recyclable packaging. This avoids the necessity of creating more plastic from raw materials such as natural gas, oil, or plants.

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What to consider when starting a coffee packaging return programme

In order to build consumer awareness about environmental challenges within the specialty coffee industry in the US, Anticonquista Café in Chicago, Illinois, launched a closed-loop cold brew coffee bottle exchange programme. 

“The city of Chicago has strict health and safety laws in place for vendors selling consumables at markets,” explains co-founder, Elmer. “We also found selling bottled cold brew coffee and freshly roasted beans in glass containers was more accessible to people of all income levels.”

The food restrictions got the brand thinking about the best way to package its cold brew, and ensure the quality of its coffee, without it being entirely wasteful. “We experimented with countless options, designs and techniques, and we decided that printing on glass bottles saves time and resources,” Lauren explains. 

Additionally, she says customers who purchase a cold brew are reminded they can return bottles to receive a $1 discount on their next cold brew coffee. “Reminding people with an economic incentive of a discount is most effective when getting bottle returns. It also works far better than a punch card loyalty programme, in our opinion,” Elmer adds. 

From May to July 2023, Anticonquista Café received around 1,154 bottle returns, representing a 36% increase from this same period last year. Elmer shares that aside from the dollar discount, customers often talk about the things they want to do with their bottles after they’ve finished drinking their cold brew. 

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Making returns easy for coffee consumers

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. 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 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. It is a highly convenient solution for customers who don’t live near recycling facilities capable of processing this kind of plastic.

The first challenge when implementing the 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,” says brand director Tim. “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.

At MTPak Coffee, we provide a full range of packaging solutions that can be tailored to fit your business model and goals. Our range of 100% recyclable coffee packaging options are made 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.

We also give our clients complete control over the design process by allowing them to build their own coffee bags. Our design team is available to help you create the ideal coffee packaging by custom-printing your design using innovative digital printing technology, with a quick turnaround and shipping time. MTPak Coffee also offers low minimum order quantities (MOQs) to micro-roasters who are looking to remain agile while showcasing brand identity and a commitment to the environment.

Images courtesy of Anticonquista Café and Firelight Coffee Roasters

For more information on sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team

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