Returning coffee bags: Do these programmes benefit brands? 

Holly Szakal
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March 25, 2024
Coffee bags that can be returned to the roastery for recycling make it easier for consumers to do their part in reducing packaging waste.

While the designs on coffee bags are essential to grab consumers’ attention, the materials used can profoundly influence their opinions of a brand. Research shows that consumers have a positive attitude towards products made from recycled materials. As a finalist for the 2024 MTPak Coffee Packaging Design Awards, Todd Johnson, the co-founder of Firelight Coffee Roasters, explains how the brand has made recycling its coffee bags simpler than ever. 

For Firelight Coffee Roasters, an oath to sustainability is more than a tagline: it’s a guiding principle woven into every aspect of the brand’s daily operations. Its dedication to producing high-quality coffee out of Atlanta, Georgia, goes far beyond what’s extracted into the cup. The brand has ongoing collaborations with importers and farmers who share its values, ensuring the product meets the highest environmental, economic, and social standards.

Beyond this, Firelight’s innovative coffee bag return programme encourages customers to return empty coffee packaging to designated collection points, where it is then recycled and repurposed. This forward-thinking approach not only minimises environmental impact but also fosters a sense of community and shared responsibility among coffee lovers.

Co-founder Todd has a decade of experience in the specialty coffee industry and has approached the brand’s coffee packaging design with meticulous intention. He shares the benefits of implementing a return programme and provides tips on how other brands can do the same. 

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Custom coffee bags that reflect brand values

The design for Firelight Coffee Roasters packaging represents “a picture of the future world we hope to see,” Todd explains. “A world where nature thrives in abundance, where the beauty of simple things is celebrated, and where everyone has access to quality coffee. When conceptualising the packaging, we intended for the illustration to create a sense of abundance, beauty, and simplicity.

“It was important that the design encompass all of nature, from the ground and water up to the air and stars,” he adds. “This mimics our hope to create and encourage regenerative coffee systems that support healthy soil, clean water, and pure air. The scene encourages the viewer to step into a journey of sustainability.”

Firelight’s coffee bags feature a simple illustration of a person sitting by a campfire surrounded by mountains and trees, under a blanket of stars. The illustration is paired with a simple and concise label. Todd says that by paring the label down to only the most vital information, the brand is able to stay true to its minimal ascetic while delivering key customer facing information. 

The label consists of the coffee name, country of origin (also represented by indigenous tree icons), tasting notes, a basic roast level, and bag size. “Our coffee speaks for itself and will never be overshadowed by too much text or description,” Todd says, adding that the colour choice for each coffee bag is “intentional and deeply layered” to strike a balance between variety and simplicity. 

He explains that multiple based colours help to differentiate the brands coffees: beige is for blends, blue for single origins, and orange for high-end limited offering. “The supporting colours create a visual sense of delight to match the sensory delight found in the aroma and flavour of the coffee itself. When lined up together, the complementary colours are not just aesthetically pleasing but impart a sense of the overwhelming abundance found in the exciting world of specialty coffee,” Todd says. 

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A commitment to sustainable coffee packaging materials

Every aspect of Firelight Coffee Roasters’ packaging has been considered from start to finish. From the design aesthetic and story, right through to the materials used, Fire lights coffee packaging encapsulates the essence of who it is as a brand. 

Todd explains that the brand’s retail coffee bags are made from recyclable low-density polyethylene (LDPE) #4. “These bags are thinner than traditional coffee bags but still contain an EVOH barrier layer to keep out oxygen and moisture.” For its bulk bags (5+lbs), Firelight Coffee currently uses standard, traditional gusseted bags and recycles them through TerraCycle

“For all other packaging we use, including shipping materials and boxes, our goal is to only send  customers things that can be reused or recycled,” Todd explains. “All our mailers and boxes are curbside recyclable, even the tape, and any art on shipping materials is printed with sustainable algae ink.”

The choice to transition to LDPE coffee bags was a strategic move, driven by the brand’s ongoing sustainability commitments. Firelight Coffee Roasters recognised the limitations of its previously 60% compostable coffee bags, which struggled to find a suitable end-of-life solution that was up to the brand’s high standards. 

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Launching a recyclable coffee bag return programme

After making the switch to fully recyclable coffee packaging, Firelight Coffee Roasters launched its Send Back Recycle Programme in 2023. The project is designed to make it easier for Firelight customers to send back empty coffee bags so that they can be recycled.

“We transition to LDPE #4 recyclable bags about two years ago with the intention of making our coffee bags easier to recycle,” Todd explains. “The reclamation programme is the next step in making that process as seamless for our customers as possible.

“While we cannot completely control what happens to our coffee bags once they ship out of our facility, we want to take responsibility for the packaging waste that we produce,” he adds. “We want to provide an easy avenue for that waste to be properly recycled rather than ending up in a landfill. As #4 plastics are not curbside recyclable, we created this as an easy method to reclaim hard-to-recycle plastics and have them properly recycled.”

Available directly on their site at the point of coffee purchase, the innovative pack comes with a prepaid mailer so consumers eliminate the hassle of finding a recycling facility themselves. Customers are encouraged to accumulate ten to twenty empty coffee bags before sending them back via mail to be adequately recycled. 

Once Firelight receives the empty coffee bags, they are transported to the brand’s partner’s at The Centre for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM). This proactive approach not only facilitates responsible disposal of coffee packaging, but also directly contributes to the support of recycling and composting programmes at CHaRM.

With 78% of US consumers admitting that sustainable lifestyle choices are a priority to them, it’s essential that coffee businesses keep up with this expectation. 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.

Images courtesy of Firelight Coffee Roasters

Read our exclusive interview with Victoriana Coffee Company about how the combination of black and gold coffee bags perfectly portrays the brand.

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