Nov 22, 2022

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The challenge:

Across the UK, c.5.3 million households own a coffee pod machine, with more than two billion pods sold every year.[1] Research conducted by YouGov on behalf of Podback[2] found that more than a third (35%) of coffee pod consumers are not aware that pods can currently be recycled, with nine in 10 (90%) stating that they’d like to be able to recycle their coffee pods through their usual household recycling services.

For local authorities and their waste management partners, their small size and the fact that they contain wet coffee grounds makes pods difficult to recover and recycle by current municipal material recovery systems.  This means that pods are widely regarded as a contaminant, ending up in the sorting plant “fines”, and ultimately the residual waste stream.

 In April 2021, Cheltenham Borough Council became the first local authority to launch a kerbside recycling service for coffee pods, in partnership with Podback, the not-for-profit coffee pod recycling scheme.

Karen Watson, environmental partnerships manager at Cheltenham Borough Council, says: “Across the Borough, our recycling rate sits at more than 50% – a fantastic achievement. Alongside regular consumer engagement campaigns, this has been made possible through the provision of separate collections and educating households about the widespread benefits of recycling.

 “While coffee pods comprise only a small fraction of household waste streams, we’re always on the lookout for new and innovative solutions to help residents recycle more.

The approach:

Previously, residents were advised to put their used coffee pods in their general waste, but in 2020 Cheltenham Borough Council’s environmental services team partnered with Podback to help develop an alternative solution, that was cost-neutral to the local authority. 

Rather than introducing a separate collection, the decision was made to retrofit existing RCV cages and utilise spare capacity in kerbside collection vehicles to pick up pods alongside other materials. This not only streamlined efficiencies and kept emissions to a minimum, but also ensured that households didn’t have to worry about a separate collection time and date.

After collection, bags of pods are stored in pallet boxes at the council’s main depot, with onward logistics to the reprocessors arranged and funded by Podback.  The depot is also a Household Waste Recycling Centre, and additional containers for plastic and aluminium pods and Podback-branded signage were installed to provide an additional service to residents.

To inform households about the new service a communications campaign was developed.  This included a leaflet drop via Royal Mail to all households, a press announcement and regular social media posts.  Residents were directed to the council’s website for more information, and to register for the free service. 

Upon registration households receive a six-month supply of recycling bags and instructions on how to present their bags for collection. Management of bag requests and fulfilment is handled by Podback, and ongoing bag supplies managed by the householder via the Podback website.  Six months after launch,  a further leaflet drop to households took place, this time featuring a die-cut leaflet in the shape of a coffee pod machine, thanking residents for recycling.

 Within 12 months of launching the weekly kerbside service, 3,100 households had signed up, and 1.5 million pods had been collected. And the service continues to gain momentum: by the end of September 2022  householder registrations had increased to 3,400 and over 20 tonnes of pods had been diverted from the general waste stream.

The Local Authority perspective:

Reflecting on the partnership with Podback Karen Watson says:  “As an authority we aim to be innovative, and were both pleased and excited to be a Podback pioneer, offering our local residents the opportunity to recycle their plastic and aluminium coffee pods every week. 

The Podback team worked hard to ensure the initiative fitted seamlessly into our existing kerbside collection processes – minimal disruptions to residents, maximum impact. What’s more, the care and attention put into communicating the service helped to create a real buzz.

“While stringent budgets often make embracing new initiatives quite challenging, and we were still in the midst of managing resources during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Podback team made it clear that introducing a service with limited budget wouldn’t be an unachievable goal.  Alongside managing the development of the service, this included resourcing collection fleets, paying for all necessary equipment and funding any additional costs relating to the time of waste management staff, and organising onward logistics to the material reprocessors. What’s more, the integrated communications campaign to inform and engage householders helped us make the most of collection availability from day one – Podback really is an all-encompassing solution!”

“Feedback from residents and councillors has been overwhelmingly positive. Our residents love how easy it is for them to recycle their coffee pods alongside their everyday household recycling, our elected members have also been impressed by the service."

Karen concludes:  “With the UK Government’s Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme for packaging facing implementation delays, joining Podback also offers local authorities an opportunity to see the benefits of proactively adopting EPR schemes.  It has allowed us here at Cheltenham to direct valuable resources from residual waste – aluminium, plastic and food (coffee grounds) - and offer our residents an extra recycling stream.”

[1] Neilson Total Coffee Database (2021) 

[2] YouGov plc Total sample size was 4323 adults Fieldwork was undertaken between 9th - 11th September 2020.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

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