Sustainability is a hot topic in both the specialty coffee and packaging industries. In 2018, the UN predicted that if consumption and waste management don’t change, the world will be home to some 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste by 2050.
Coffee businesses around the world have been focusing on creating a more sustainable, circular economy. They do this by adding value to products and materials they use. They have also made progress replacing disposable packaging with “greener” solutions.
We know that single-use packaging poses a threat to the global ecosystem. However, there are ways to minimise the use of single-use packaging. These include to avoiding fuel-based materials and recycling the packaging that is already in circulation.
To learn more about what makes coffee packaging sustainable, I spoke with Mark Zhou, the founder and President of MTPak Coffee.
Lee este artículo en español ¿Qué Tan Sostenible es el Empaque de tu Café?
What Is Sustainable Packaging?
Packaging accounts for around 3% of the coffee supply chain’s total carbon footprint. If plastic packaging isn’t properly sourced, produced, transported, and discarded, it can be detrimental for the environment. To be truly “green”, packaging must do more than simply be recyclable or reusable – its entire life needs to be sustainable.
The global increase in the impact of packaging and plastic waste on the environment means there has been extensive research into greener alternatives. For now, the focus is on using renewable raw materials, lowering the carbon footprint through production, and safely repurposing materials at the end of the product’s life.
Packaging is generally defined as being either rigid or flexible. Flexible packaging includes bags, pouches, and sleeves, whereas rigid packaging includes fixed boxes, pallets, and crates, for example.
While rigid packaging can offer more support and protection, flexible packaging is generally more sustainable. Because fewer raw materials are used to create flexible packaging, it has a lower carbon and water footprint, and ultimately contributes much less to landfill. Flexible Packaging Europe estimates that while flexible packaging only contributes to 10% of all packaging materials used on the continent, it packs more than 40% of items.
Most coffee bags offered by specialty roasters are made from flexible packaging. So, what more can roasters do to make their packaging more sustainable?
Keeping Your Coffee Safe, Sustainably
Quality coffee packaging should protect the beans contained within for at least 12 months (even though coffee should preferably be consumed long before that).
As coffee beans are porous, they absorb moisture quickly. When storing coffee, you should keep it as dry as possible. If your beans absorb moisture, the quality of your cup will suffer as a result.
As well as moisture, you should also keep coffee beans in airtight packaging that protects them from sunlight. Packaging should also be strong and abrasion-resistant.
So how can you make sure your packaging meets all these conditions while being as sustainable as possible?
Multilayered Coffee Packaging
Multilayer structures are more effective at protecting coffee beans than single-layer structures. One single layer of material doesn’t usually provide the necessary strength, so flexible packaging tends to have a minimum of two layers. “Our newest line of fully recyclable coffee bags has one layer of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and one of ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) that functions as a barrier against oxygen,” Mark explains.
However, multilayer structures can make things confusing – especially for the end-user. When there are two different materials in the same packaging, often they will have to be separated for correct recycling and disposal. A common example is an aluminum foil inside a polyethylene (PE) bag.
The adhesive between the two materials can make them hard to separate and process. This affects how they are collected and recycled. In some cases, it might mean that they end up going to landfill or have to be incinerated.
When choosing multilayer coffee packaging, it’s important to make sure that all components are fully biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable. Mark stresses that this doesn’t apply only to the layers, but also the inks and labels.
While inks and labels need to effectively stick to the packaging itself, they can also contaminate the wastestream. Mark tells me that MTPak uses “water-based printing inks and coatings, with low volatile organic compounds (VOC)”, which are “compostable and easily removed during the recycling process”.
Which Materials Should You Use?
Two of the most popular “green” materials used to make coffee bags are unbleached kraft and rice paper. These organic alternatives are made from wood pulp, tree bark, or bamboo.
While these materials alone can be biodegradable and compostable, bear in mind that they will need a second, inner layer to protect the beans. This is usually made of plastic.
Plastic-coated paper can be recycled, but only in facilities that have the right equipment. You can check with recycling and processing facilities in your area and ask them if they accept these materials.
Recyclable, Biodegradable & Compostable Coffee Pouches
Many packaging companies are investing a lot of time and money into researching biodegradable packaging. Options that are being considered include cornstarch, sugarcane, cellulose, and wood pulp, as well as various other forms of organic matter.
However, 100% biodegradable or compostable packaging options just aren’t available yet. Only around 60% of the material used to make these coffee bags will break down. The remaining 40% consists of non-biodegradable layers, degassing valves, and sealing systems, which need to be removed and separately placed in the corresponding bin.
“The industry is not there yet,” Mark explains. “The more environmentally friendly options on the market for roasted coffee beans might still be unavailable in certain regions, or they don’t provide sufficient protection for transport and long-term storage.”
Even then, in order for packaging to decompose successfully and quickly, specific conditions need to be met. Juliet Philips, an ocean campaigner at UK-based NGO Environmental Investigation Agency says that if a biodegradable package gets into a water stream, “it could pose just as much of a problem to marine life as a conventional plastic cup”.
Compostable materials also face similar issues. Your home compost heap might not contain the necessary microbes to break materials in coffee bags down to their organic components, and even if it does, you need to make sure you’re using the right equipment.
In some cases, recycling is actually much better for the environment than composting. For example, if recycled, the components of a coffee bag have the possibility to become very useful in different industries. Low-density polyethylene – the kind used in MTPak bags – can often be repurposed as trash bags, films for construction and agriculture, furniture, and more.
What’s The Best Option?
So, which eco-friendly packaging is best for you?
Well, it comes down to two things: your needs and the waste management capabilities you have available. If the facility you would use to process a certain material is far away, for example, the long transport time will cause your carbon footprint to increase. In this case, it might be better to choose materials which can be safely processed in your area.
“More eco-friendly pouches with fewer protective barriers might not be a problem when you sell freshly roasted coffee to end-users or coffee shops, provided they consume it quickly or store it in a more protective container.” Mark says. “But if your roasted beans will travel a long way or sit on shelves for some time, consider how much protection they’ll require.”
A fully recyclable pouch can be a great way of minimising your environmental impact. Alternatively, you can look for a bag that combines both biodegradable and recyclable materials. However, in this case, you should always make sure that the individual materials can be separated.
Furthermore, no matter which sustainable packaging option you choose, make sure you communicate it to your customers. It’s important that your business is perceived as sustainable. Tell your customers what to do with the empty coffee bag and offer them solutions. Companies like The Coffee Factory, for example, provide information about their bags’ recyclability and compostability on their website.
Packaging is essential for keeping your coffee safe in its journey from roastery to cup. It allows for safe transport, preserves flavours and aromas, prolongs shelf life, and, if processed correctly, reduces waste. There’s no doubt that researchers and packaging manufacturers will keep improving solutions with the aim of offering 100% sustainable coffee bags.
Mark tells me that “the goal is to follow the ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach, rather than the ‘cradle-to-grave’”. In the meantime, however, roasters, coffee shops, and consumers can all play a role in minimising the environmental impact of their coffee drinking.
So, when speaking with your packaging supplier, ask them about the materials used for the structure, zippers, inks, labels, and degassing valves. Consult your local waste management facilities, too, and make sure you tell your customers how to correctly dispose of your bags. By raising awareness and making it easier for them, there’s a higher chance that your coffee packaging will enter the correct waste stream and be processed sustainably.
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