Product packaging is one of the biggest contributors of plastic waste. According to recent estimates, around 46% of global waste production comes from discarded packaging, most of which ends up in landfills and oceans.
As well as damaging marine life and entering the food chain in the form of micro plastics, plastic waste accelerates climate change. A study published in PLOS One Wednesday found that some of the most common plastics release the greenhouse gasses methane and ethylene when they break down in the environment.
Although recycling was once seen as the solution to this problem, critically low recycling rates have long since dampened enthusiasm. Instead, more and more companies are now looking at the opportunities presented by packaging return schemes, in which customers send back their empty packaging for reuse.
To find out more about return schemes and their impact on plastic waste in the coffee industry, I spoke with the founder of Bequest Coffee Roasters, William Ruiz.
The problem of packaging waste
Most products need packaging. It’s crucial not only for ensuring products arrive to customers undamaged, but also for preserving the freshness of perishable goods.
However, while packaging itself isn’t a problem, the way it’s handled after use is.
The main issue stems from low recycling rates. All too often, recyclable packaging materials such as aluminium, glass, paper, and plastic end up as waste rather than going to recycling facilities, with reasons ranging from a lack of equipment to insufficient consumer awareness.
For example, out of the 82.2 million tonnes of packaging waste generated in 2018, only half of it ended up in recycling bins.
Instead of contributing to a circular economy, this packaging waste typically goes to landfill sites, incinerators, or the ocean, where it causes damage to the environment. As it breaks down it emits greenhouse gases such as methane, while also entering the food chain as micro plastics.
Meanwhile, burning waste emits vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, both posing a risk to human health and accelerating the rate of climate change. According to recent studies, CO2 emissions from waste incinerators could rise to 15 million tonnes by 2030 in the UK alone.
Furthermore, the fact that packaging continues to dominate the end-use market of plastic puts great pressure on natural resources. The short lifespan of packaging means new resources, such as coal, natural gas and crude oil, are constantly extracted to replace discarded plastic materials.
The role of coffee packaging return schemes
In the coffee industry, millions rely on packaging every single day. It’s essential not only for keeping the coffee all in one place during transport and storage, but also for preserving its freshness and preventing exposure to external factors, such as oxygen, moisture, and light.
However, like other industries, the majority of the packaging used for coffee ends up as waste. According to sustainability researcher Gunter Pauli, global coffee production creates more than 23 million tons of waste per year, including the packaging used for roasted beans.
A number of solutions have been put forward to help tackle this problem. Yet one of the most successful, alongside high-barrier compostable bags, is packaging return schemes.
William Ruiz is the founder of Bequest Coffee Roasters in New Haven, Connecticut. This year, he launched Close the Loop, a return scheme that allows customers to send back their empty coffee jars using a prepaid shipping label.
William tells me the idea came about after he realised the impact his purchasing habits were having on the environment.
“Everytime I bought coffee, I found that I was always throwing away the packaging,” he says. “I wanted my coffee business to be different and be accountable for what it creates.
“I had to come up with a mechanism that makes returning coffee packaging worthwhile for my customers and my business, so that the whole programme can be economically and environmentally sustainable.”
With Close the Loop, consumers pay a deposit of $2.50 for every jar of coffee. Whenever they are ready to return the empty jars, a prepaid shipping label can be requested.
Once Bequest receives the jars, the deposit is taken off the next purchase. Effectively, this creates an incentive that aims to get customers in the habit of returning their packaging.
“I think the deposit is huge, especially if you compare it to the five or ten cents refund on empty bottles and cans here in the US,” William says. “For five or ten cents, people are not going to make an effort to return the packaging – they’d rather throw it away.”
Bequest estimates that every returned jar saves 70 cubic inches of landfill. As well as freeing up space, it also saves the raw materials that would otherwise be needed to make new jars. And the more consumers return the same jar, the more the benefits grow.
“Imagine one jar that goes through the return cycle twenty times,” William says. “That adds up to twenty jars that didn’t go to the garbage.”
Why roasters should offer deposit return schemes
Packaging waste is a widespread problem that stems from all industries. However, few sectors have more to lose from the piling up of landfill sites than coffee.
This is because the methane gas emitted as packaging waste breaks down in landfill sites contributes to global warming, which is having a serious impact on the land available for growing high-quality coffee.
Studies suggest that by 2050, about half of land used to grow arabica coffee will be unproductive as a result of climate change.
William explains that because coffee roasters are so intimately connected with different aspects of the supply chain, they have a responsibility to do all they can to reduce their environmental impact.
“As a coffee roaster, I think it really hits you at heart because you are so close to the source,” he says. “You visit the farm, you see the trees, the plants, climate, and everything.
“You can directly impact your own supply chain and carbon footprint by just coming up with a closed-loop scheme or some sort of programme that allows you to eliminate waste.”
But this isn’t the only reason roasters should offer return schemes. Consumers are increasingly willing to turn their backs on those who don’t take steps to reduce their environmental impact.
According to new research from Kantar, a data insight company, 90% of UK consumers say that companies should take greater responsibility for the waste they produce. Meanwhile, 53% of respondents rank the overuse of plastic packaging among their top three concerns.
This sentiment is supported by William, who says since launching the packaging return scheme, Bequest’s customer relations have improved considerably.
As the world continues to embrace the concept of a circular economy, coffee roasters have an important role to play in the shift from a take-make-waste system to one where we eliminate waste, circulate resources and regenerate nature.
In line with the British Coffee Association’s goal of achieving zero-waste packaging by 2025, now would be a good time for coffee roasters to start exploring return schemes or making the switch to sustainable packaging options.
At MTPak Coffee, we understand the importance of reducing carbon emissions and promoting a circular economy. Our coffee packaging is recyclable, compostable and biodegradable to fully support coffee roasters in achieving their sustainability goals.