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How one Isle of Man-based coffee shop found zero waste meant taking matters into their own hands

The Coffee Exchange showcases the coffee shop-come-meeting space model at its very best and, in many ways, you could call it a coffee shop 2.0. Founded in 2014, this savvy Isle of Man-based enterprise is run by business professionals for business professionals and prides itself on providing outstanding service, food and drink - not least, that all important coffee (‘probably the best you've ever tasted!’). 

When current owners, family team Sian Penton and Ed Alderson, bought Coffee Exchange in May 2018, they sought to develop the enterprise’s environmental offering in a bid to move the business towards zero waste. But with no infrastructure on the island for industrially composting waste, the couple decided to take matters into their own hands. Nearly a year later, they discuss what prompted the transition and why going green can add value to your business in more ways than one.  

Coffee Exchange is located in a bustling business district of Douglas, the Isle of Man’s capital town which is situated on the east side of the island. The menu sports a comprehensive range of coffees, teas and cold drinks along with quality lunchtime favourites such as freshly prepared paninis, jacket potatoes and baked goods. 

A popular meeting place for professionals and their loved ones, Coffee Exchange has a family-oriented feel as well as a business one. The ambiance is fitting given that Sian and Ed decided to enter the world of coffee shop management via the finance sector (where Ed still works) so that the couple could spend more time with one another and their children on the weekends. 

A sustainable philosophy;

One of Ed and Sian’s main objectives for the business was to have a positive impact on the environment without compromising on quality, service or price points. The environmental crisis really hit home for the family on a trip to Panama early in 2018 whereby the whole family were saddened to see great swathes of plastic waste discarded in the ocean. The BBC’s “Blue Planet” had a particularly profound influence on Sian and Ed’s eldest daughter Annabelle which further spurred the couple on in their bid to develop a more environmental operation. 

The Coffee Exchange philosophy is built on sustainability, from plant-based packaging to their ongoing support of local businesses and charities. For instance, when the dreaded ‘Blue Monday’ hit (the last Monday in January and so say lowest point of the year) the couple teamed up with Appleby International offering free coffee and cake to cheer everyone up and give professionals an opportunity to take a break from the office. 

Food provenance is also imperative to the business, therefore Coffee Exchange source local produce wherever possible: free range eggs, local dairy products, island-made pies and their top selling granola pots which are made with locally baked granola and locally produced yoghurt. 

“It’s built into our ethos to support local businesses,” Sian explained, “We’re so lucky that we can actually drive around the island and pass our suppliers and local farms, we’ve established a chain of support across the whole of the Isle of Man”. 

With the rise and rise of flexitarian and plant-based diets, in 2018 Coffee Exchange introduced a vegan range which offered a competitive edge as well as contributing to the business’s sustainable ethos. 

As the cafe is closed at weekends, Coffee Exchange had found predicting the volume of sales - and therefore minimising food waste at the end of the week - problematic until Sian found a solution: making more products to order on Fridays.   

Waste reduction gets DIY;

With limited facilities available on the island, the Isle of Man does not currently support the industrial composting of packaging waste. Local businesses are calling for change however, the infrastructure is not going to transform overnight which leaves islanders with a dilemma. This presented a huge challenge to the sustainability of Coffee Exchange until the couple decided to compost food and packaging waste at home.   

“We have a standard compost bin of around 320 litres,” Sian said, “It takes around a week or two for food and packaging to reduce down (on its own the packaging would take longer but the food waste speeds up the process). Composting has been great for our family as we can see our waste being transformed. It’s magical to see it turning into something new and the kids love getting involved too.”

Sian plans to create enough nutrient-rich soil from their efforts that they can offer this back to customers in the form of compostable cups sown with seedlings. 

Switching to compostables has bought financial benefits as well as ecological ones. Charges for the removal of commercial waste is calculated by bin weight but through composting, Sian and Ed have dramatically reduced the volume of waste going into their commercial bin. This not only saves money, it frees up space allowing Coffee Exchange to buy in bulk, further reducing both waste and expenditure.   

Finding the right packaging provider;

After careful research, Sian and Ed decided to work with labelling and plant-based packaging provider Planglow, a decision based on the quality of products. The couple previously looked at four providers in total and tested a number of packaging items but hit a brick wall when it came to finding a compostable sandwich pack that could also deliver on freshness. The search was frustrating and at one point it seemed as if they’d run out of options. Then a family day out unwittingly found the solution, as Sian explained:

“We’d bought a sandwich and noticed it was in a compostable pack from Planglow with a use by date of three days. We just couldn’t believe it would stay fresh for so long so we tried it out for ourselves and we haven’t looked back”. 

In addition to Planglow’s longer life peel and seal sandwich wedge, Coffee Exchange also uses a tortilla wrap pack and pot from the same rustic kraft-finish Natural range. These sit alongside a grease resistant deli paper from Planglow’s colourful new Botanical Plus range, plus Planglow’s compostable cutlery and lids as well. They hope to extend this offering in the future by adding Planglow’s Botanical range of compostable takeaway cups.

Sian commented, “The packaging offers an earthy, sophisticated look, while the deli paper comes in these exciting vibrant colours, our customers notice them too and we’ve been delighted with their comments. Planglow definitely has a good understanding of our business and customers However, it’s the quality of Planglow’s products that has been the most important thing for us and our brand”.

This same high quality, professional finish extends to every aspect of the business therefore, Coffee Exchange also use Planglow’s online labelling app - Label Logic Live - to create and overprint their product labels (which are also provided by Planglow).

When asked if Planglow’s products have increased the perceived value or quality of Coffee Exchange’s offering, Sian said, “Absolutely. I think our customers are shocked that the packaging is compostable. It’s not flimsy and yet there is a perception that eco packaging will be. Our customers are surprised that we are able to use compostables - to do our bit for the planet - without compromising on quality or price.”

Breaking the mould of the stereotypical “eco” café, Coffee Exchange demonstrates the commerciality of an eco-friendly model. And while sustainability is not always a key concern for some of their customers, Sian has gone to great lengths to make it as easy as possible for all of their clientele to make more environmentally minded choices.

“We want to show that it’s no effort to go green and that we are here to help. What’s more, when given the option to go compostable, our customers’ response is usually very positive. That said, I didn’t ever want to push it down people’s throats or for customers to feel that we’re being preachy. For me it’s more subtle than that - I want to show people that we can run a smart, successful, sustainable food business without diminishing the quality or raising costs. We’re not looking to make people feel guilty, only to make them feel good about what’s being done.”

Sian concluded, “We really enjoy running our own business and for us, the best part is our ability to enable change and make an impact. When you’re working for someone else, you can suggest things but they won’t necessarily implement it however, we can use our passion to help make things better.”

To find out more about Coffee Exchange visit them on Facebook or Instagram

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