Modern coffee packaging needs to tick a lot more boxes to meet the high expectations of today’s consumers.
Beyond aesthetics and its ability to preserve coffee, a growing number of consumers expect coffee bags to be recyclable or compostable. Notably, compostable coffee bags have become increasingly popular among specialty roasters.
They are made from organic matter that can be broken down to produce nutrient-rich compost that leaves no environmentally damaging residue. Additionally, these bags are sturdy, affordable, and easy to produce, while showcasing a commitment to sustainability.
However, the terms around sustainable coffee packaging can be confusing, and are often used incorrectly. Therefore, it is essential that roasters share the benefits of compostable coffee packaging with their consumers.
Read on to find out more about how compostable coffee packaging compares to other materials.
What is compostable coffee packaging?
Compostable coffee packaging is traditionally made from materials that will, under the right circumstances, break down into its organic components. These components should leave no negative impact on the environment.
A helpful way for consumers to understand whether packaging is compostable is to consider their compost heaps at home.
Most materials labelled as compostable can be placed in a home compost heap to break down. While the composting process may take months, these materials will eventually reach a state where they will enrich the soil, rather than pollute it.
Conversely, consumers wouldn’t usually add a plastic bottle to their compost heaps. Despite the fact that plastic can be broken down naturally, it can take up to 450 years to decompose.
Furthermore, plastics tend to break down into smaller particles called microplastics, which pollute the soil and water, and have proved hazardous to human health.
Essentially, most materials that are made of entirely plant-based components should return to their bio-matter state and are considered compostable.
When it comes to coffee packaging, the most popular compostable options are rice paper, kraft paper, and polylactic acid (PLA).
Despite its name, rice paper is made from a plant called tetrapanax papyrifer, or the rice paper plant.
It is important to note that this differs from the plant that produces rice as we more commonly know it. They are from unrelated families, which can cause confusion.
Rice paper used for packaging is made by blending the rice paper plant with other plant-derived sources, such as bamboo and hemp. This produces a natural pulp that can be stretched, pressed, and rolled into non-fibrous sheets of textured, off-white paper.
In addition to being fully recyclable, rice paper has high tensile and tear strength, and has effective barrier properties when layered with additional packaging materials.
Another popular option for the outer packaging layer for coffee bags is kraft paper. This material is fully compostable and can be recycled up to seven times.
Typically, kraft paper is made from wood pulp. Provided the virgin wood comes from a sustainably managed forest, this material has good environmental credentials.
While both rice paper and kraft paper have several environmental benefits, they must be lined with an impermeable barrier when used in coffee packaging.
Traditionally, plastics or metal foils have been used to fill this role. However, a fully compostable option is a bioplastic lining, such as PLA.
PLA is one of the most highly produced bioplastics in the world, and is made by fermenting carbohydrates from renewable resources such as maize, cornstarch, and sugarcane.
This fermentation produces resin filaments that have similar characteristics to petroleum-based plastic. The filaments can be shaped, moulded, and coloured to suit a range of needs.
PLA has comparable structural and barrier properties to other thermoplastics, like polystyrene and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – without the environmental cost.
A point often overlooked is that even among compostable packaging, not all materials are equal. While some packaging is suitable for home composting, others require specific temperature or microbial conditions to break down.
These conditions can only be achieved in specific commercial facilities. As a result, many local governments may not be able to process compostable materials with their kerbside collections.
Therefore, roasters can help consumers collect these packaging materials by implementing a coffee packaging recycling scheme.
Placing collection points for used packaging in roasteries may help ensure it is taken to a commercial facility for proper disposal, eliminating unnecessary waste.
How do compostable coffee bags compare to recyclable and biodegradable bags?
To be truly “green”, packaging must be more than simply recyclable or reusable – its entire life needs to be sustainable.
According to European Bioplastics standards, compostable materials should meet the following criteria.
They must achieve biodegradation within six months, and the materials must disintegrate to less than 10% of their original mass.
Additionally, the materials must have no negative effect on the composting process or leave any traces of heavy metals. Essentially, compostable materials must have no impact on the agronomic value of the final compost, or any toxic effect on plant growth.
Confusion over terms such as bioplastic, biodegradable, and compostable can make it hard for coffee roasters to make the right choice when it comes to packaging.
The term “biodegradable” can be difficult to pin down, leaving it open to exploitation by greenwashing marketers.
For example, a PET plastic bottle could be considered biodegradable by strict standards, as it would eventually break down into its constituent parts. The main problem lies in what is left behind. With biodegradability, there is no requirement for non-toxicity.
While compostable materials can break down and provide nutrients for other biological life, there is no such guarantee for biodegradable packaging.
Equally, there can be problems with recyclable plastic packaging. In addition to being difficult to process, plastic loses quality each time it is recycled. Therefore, in order to create a usable product, recycled plastic is often mixed with virgin plastics – essentially creating more plastic to recycle in the future.
Compostable bags are best suited for consumers who will brew and consume their coffee relatively quickly after it is purchased. However, for customers who store beans for longer periods, roasters may consider using packaging that offers more robust barrier properties.
How to maintain sustainable credentials
An area that is often out of a roaster’s control is what happens to coffee packaging once it has been used.
For many types of packaging, it can be difficult for the end-user to know how best to dispose of it.
For instance, when recyclable or compostable materials end up in the wrong waste bin, it can lead to a whole batch of recycled pulp having to be discarded.
Furthermore, adding disposal instructions to coffee packaging may be difficult, as this essential space is often used for branding and marketing purposes.
Additionally, any other available space is typically used to convey tasting notes, brew ratios, and recipes.
Technology can be exceptionally beneficial here. Introducing a quick response (QR) code to a website or coffee packaging can help provide consumers with instant access to vital information.
QR codes can guide consumers to how-to guides or video tutorials, which could show them how to dispose of coffee packaging properly. More so, roasters can use this as an opportunity to teach consumers more about the business’s sustainable practices.
At MTPak Coffee, we offer roasters with a choice of fully compostable coffee packaging options, including kraft paper, rice paper, and PLA-lined bags.
We can also include QR codes that can be printed directly onto coffee packaging.w These can display as much or as little information as you choose, and can help ensure that instructions on the correct disposal of used packaging is clearly conveyed to customers.