When Nespresso and Jacobs Douwe Egberts launched Podback early last year, it was heralded as a great cross-industry collaboration that tackled a critical issue – how to recycle and reuse the ever-growing number of coffee pods being used across the UK.

The food industry has had a long and tricky relationship with recycling schemes, not least because there is a difficult balance to be struck. The manufacturer needs to be doing as much as it can to make the scheme as simple as possible while also ensuring customer behavior is modified to the extent that they will follow through and take whatever additional steps are required.

While schemes like Podback are a step in the right direction in terms of manufacturer action, the devil is in the detail when dealing with consumers, and that is where the real challenge lies. While the availability of Podback means that the likes of Nestle, Tassimo and the other major pod producers can say that their product is recyclable, there isn’t enough being done to ensure that customer behavior is changing in a way that makes a major difference.

The reality is that – despite the manufacturer’s claims - most coffee pods are not ‘recyclable’ in the way that most people understand the term. To the average consumer, recycling is now what you simply throw in the bin that you put out on the curbside every other week. While huge changes have been made in attitudes since the introduction of the Household Waste Recycling Act nearly 20 years ago, the pace of change is steady and I don’t believe we have yet reached a time where people will go through all the steps that schemes like Podback require. 

What this leads to is “wishcycling” – households throwing things that they hope are recyclable in that bin and crossing their fingers. In the vast majority of cases, this leads to huge amounts of contamination, with latest figures showing 525,000 tonnes of household recycling collected was rejected at the point of sorting.

The Local Government Association – which commissioned the research – has gone on record as saying that while councils and households are working together to increase recycling rates, with plastic packaging collected by councils doubling over the past decade, packaging manufacturers are ‘still not doing enough’.

In reality, the challenges around Podback are a mirror to what is happening more widely within the supply chain. While it covers a specific type of pod, there is a multitude of other types of coffee packaging that need to be more readily recyclable. 

Extrapolate to a CPG brand or a retailer that has dozens of different products, and you quickly have hundreds or thousands of different packaging types that need to be more sustainable. It’s clear that standalone schemes operated by individual manufacturers or small groups are not going to make a significant dent in the problem.

The only way that sustainable packaging can be driven across multiple product types and categories is by true collaboration with suppliers. Key to doing this is understanding how ready suppliers are to help you and – crucially - whether you need to help them help you.

By doing this, CPGs and retailers can quickly establish which suppliers are in the best position to support their sustainability journey, and work collaboratively towards a common solution. 

In reality, we are a long way from a position where all packaging material is commonly recyclable with household waste - there is simply not the capacity at local authority centres to process everything efficiently. However, if there is no alternative, manufacturers need to take a leaf out of another industry’s book by looking at a model similar to the one used by Hewlett-Packard (HP), which has recycled more than 875 million ink cartridges since 1997.

Rather than looking to introduce a scheme after the fact, HP’s cartridges come with a pre-paid bag in which the used cartridges can be sent directly back to the manufacturer. The key difference here is that no promises are made about how and what the cartridges will be recycled into, with the messaging centering around reuse through a circular economy – a ‘closed loop’ approach, as they call it.

Another change needs to be around the messaging on packaging. As consumers, we’re all guilty of reading the part of the packaging that is in 20-point font and disregarding the bits in five-point, so a manufacturer calling its packaging “green” or similar has the potential to be severely misleading.

If you’re saying that your packaging is “recyclable” when in reality what you mean is “compostable” the majority of consumers aren’t going to be thinking twice about throwing it in with their cardboard Amazon boxes and plastic milk bottles, inadvertently contributing this ongoing issue of contamination.

As we look at the lessons we can learn from Podback’s first eighteen months, the reality is that more effort needs to be channeled towards fundamental changes in both the materials used and how they are marketed – anything else is tantamount to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

James Butcher is a director at Supply Pilot, which works with Walmart, Waitrose, Co-Op, Asda and other large retailers to help them become more sustainable. James has extensive retail, manufacturing and packaging industry knowledge, and is also a member of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.