BRINGING AN IDEA TO LIFE: THE ZERO-WASTE COFFEE CLUB

Posted by Stephanie Welter-Krause on

Inspiration, and a problem to solve

As a young adult, I became increasingly aware of consumer waste, and decided I wasn’t going to be complacent. Since then I’ve been buying in bulk, choosing glass or paper packing over plastic, bringing my own bags and beverage containers. I even started making my own yogurt in order to cut down on plastic containers. So when I set out to start my own coffee brand, I knew I needed a solution that fit my ethos. 

Starting my packaging search, I went straight to traditional paper bags that were PLA lined, with a tin-tie closure — accessible and available in small quantities. I then found some compostable bags with a valve that also can seal, for better shelf life. However, since most of the U.S. doesn’t have compost collection services from their city like I do, I felt there should be a better option. Organic waste in landfill creates methane, a cause for climate change. I wanted to find an option that’s accessible for everyone and fulfill my mission to minimize waste. 

Where to start?

Inspired by refill shops and the stories of the milk bottle deliveries, I set out to find something different. Could I create a system that offered customers my quality coffee without all the waste? Locally, sure — I could refill folks' containers, maybe I’d show up on their doorstep with a coffee bin and a scoop. But that would take forever. And in COVID times, not ideal. So I dove into more packaging research.

A Solution

I needed to find a reusable container to mail the coffee in, that could be cleaned easily, and reused many, many times, and was lightweight. A reusable mailing vessel that could withstand being shipped. AND a way for customers to store their coffee so it would stay fresh between deliveries. 

The coffee delivery vessel: After researching numerous materials accounting for key factors (weight, cleanability, durability), I landed on silicone bags. They each hold up to 1.5lbs of coffee, are easy to clean in a dishwasher, they’re lightweight, and very durable. I started with Stasher half-gallon bags, but moved to Durbl’s half-gallon bags since they stand up on their own — easier to fill and to dry. 

Mailing vessel: I ordered various mailer bags and envelopes in paper, paperboard, recycled PPE, and compostable film. Nothing really seemed to fit all the criteria of being durable, reusable, and ideally not made of plastic. Then I randomly came across Kokua Bags (Instagram is good for some things!). They are fabric mailer bags, inspired to replace the plastic ones Amazon and other big box stores use. They have a zipper you can secure, and a pouch for the mailing label. They were the perfect size for my coffee bags too — what a find! 

Coffee storage: To cut down on mailing, labor, and logistics, I wanted to mail coffee to my customers once per month. So, they need a good solution for storing their high-quality coffee for a month! Researching coffee storage options (I historically would just use glass jars), I came across three that stood out that had the quality in mind, and the style folks might like for their countertop. The Airscape storage canister from Planetary Design, MiiR’s Coffee Canister, and Fellow’s Atmos Vacuum Canister. After testing them all out, I landed on the Airscape as the easiest to use, lightweight, and available in different sizes that work well for coffee: 1lb and 1kilo. 

The Pilot

To test this system, I reached out to a handful of my existing coffee subscribers. Folks were pretty enthusiastic. I gave them the option to get the storage container, or use their own, then choose how much coffee per month. We tested 1-3lbs of coffee, doing local deliveries and shipping across the U.S. I’d check in with folks to see how they were liking the system with an enthusiastic response. 

The silicone bags sometimes opened in transit for some customers (they are enclosed in the Kokua bags, so no product was lost), so I added clips to the bags, and poked small holes to allow for the beans to 'degass'(a natural process in freshly roasted coffee), and hoped that reinforcement would deter any opening in travel. That seemed to do the trick! 

Without making custom components, I decided this system is ready to open up for anyone to join. With more people participating, we can test the system further and hopefully create a whole new approach enjoying our coffee at home and having a positive impact in the world.

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