How many of us could put our hands up and say we’re addicted to coffee?
In some cultures, coffee is ceremonial. In the west, its presence is less steeped in tradition and more a necessity for fuelling the fast paced nature of our culture. And with this lifestyle, the unfortunate convenience of packaging we can just throw away and forget - from single-use coffee bean packaging to single-use cups.
Single-use cups are addressed in many other guides we've written. Here, we are going to take a look at the packaging side of coffee beans, from roaster to cafe to consumer, offering some helpful and accessible ways to navigate single-use and the war on waste (or is it the war on convenience?) aspect of society's daily morning ritual.
Think of this as a guide to a circular coffee economy.
Coffee beans - from roaster to cafe
For the most part, coffee roasters import raw coffee beans from an array of equatorial countries. This distribution is in the form of weighted and individually packaged, coffee specific bags, generally 250g, 1kg and 3kg wholesale sizes.
Due to the nature of how coffee acts in a sealed environment, not any old bag will do. The majority of coffee bags are a composite material comprised of plastic, foil and paper, and containing pressure valves and plastic resealing strips. This means that in the recycling stream the individual components are difficult to recover, so most are sent straight to landfill.
However, with many business migrating to support more localised models, there is some good news on the horizon.
An emerging practice is the transportation and distribution of coffee beans from roaster to cafe in reusable buckets and tins.
This works on a swap distribution method, where the beans are delivered in sealed buckets, and the previously used empty buckets are picked up, sanitised and reused. This practice, which is gaining popularity, saves thousands of coffee bags entering the waste stream around the country. It also saves money for both the roaster and cafe.
To access this kind of initiative, we recommend making contact with a coffee roaster located in fairly close proximity to your business and asking if this method is available. If you find it isn’t available in your area, consider starting the conversation to see if it could be implemented.
Here are some examples of the system in action in locations across Australia.
Marvel Street Coffee Roasters Byron Bay
According to Marvel Street, over half of their wholesale accounts now use the reusable bucket swap system, with one bucket in circulation saving on average six hundred single use bags from entering landfill per year.
Marvel Street also utilise the plastic bags that the beans are shipped in by cutting them to size, heat sealing, and then repurposing them for their retail shipments.
INKA Coffee Roasters Cairns
The uptake of the reusable bucket system for Inka's wholesale accounts is a massive 80%! The bucket system has also filtered through to other wholesale roasters who purchase Inka's green beans, roast them and then distribute them throughout their own wholesale customers.
Inka believes that using the refill system is saving an average of 550 + single-use bags PER CUSTOMER, per year, with the current metal drums being in circulation for over two years.
How is a bulk delivery swap system is beneficial for your business?
Adopting behaviours and best practices like bulk reuse systems is worthy of promotion and can instigate much needed change across the industry in general.
You’re also helping your mates who roast the beans to save on packaging costs, supporting them to develop their own businesses in a more sustainable fashion.
And of course, you're also saving on single-use packaging waste and costs - the savings can pass from the roaster to you, and from you to the customer.
Coffee beans - from cafe to consumer
The great news about bulk systems is that the reuse aspect of it can also be offered to your customers who purchase beans from you to use at home. Instead of ordering separate 1kg retail bags, increase your bulk order and;
Align with a coffee brand that can sell you their 1kg retail coffee canisters and encourage your community to simply bring back the canister - refilling them with your bulk tins. You can also source your own branded canisters that you can sell, or lend out for a deposit, which is refunded when opting out of the reuse network.
Display signage that encourages your community to BYO their own container. This not only saves on canister costs but supports resources that are already in use, such as jars and reusable containers, both of which are common kitchen items. Check out our poster resource page to access our downloadable BYO coffee canister sign!
A note on single-use coffee bags
Over recent years there has been an emergence of brands opting for 'compostable' versions of coffee bags.
While this represents a shift of conscience in the right direction, the benefits are negligible. Why? We’ll explain below:
The majority of these bags are only partly compostable, meaning the consumer needs to remove parts of the product to enable it to be composted - e.g. the valve or the sealing strip.
Ensuring compostable items enter the commercial composting stream is difficult, as access to these services is currently not widespread throughout Australia.
Feedback from roasters is that the compostable product is inferior to traditional packaging, not reacting well to the oily, gaseous nature of coffee beans.
Compostable coffee bags are also far more expensive than traditional varieties.
And whilst coffee bags are often sold and marketed as 'recyclable', their composite nature makes them difficult to recover and process. Therefore they are not widely recycled in practice. There is minimal availability of genuinely recyclable coffee bags, and the recyclability of these is compromised due the to the array of different types of bags used, and the inability for waste facilities to deem one bag recyclable, but another not. Most are send to landfill.
Local councils often have resources online where you check whether or not coffee bags are accepted in the local recycling stream.
So if not compostable or recyclable, what’s the best option?
Reusables are always the best option. Businesses who support reusable systems and encourage customers to BYO canisters reinforce the value of reusables, highlighting to their community why conscious changes are so necessary in order to migrate away from a throwaway society.