Compostable vs. biodegradable coffee packaging: What’s the difference?

Kate Ingham-Smith
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November 17, 2021
biodegradable coffee packaging

As concerns over the environmental impact of coffee packaging grow, roasters have increasingly turned to more sustainable materials for their cups and bags.

This is crucial not only for the long-term success of roasting businesses, but also for the future of the planet.

According to recent estimates, municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States, which contributes significantly to global warming.

As such, many have switched from hard-to-recycle materials to compostable and biodegradable packaging in an attempt to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill sites.

However, while the two have similarities, they are often used interchangeably when, in reality, they refer to two distinctly different types of packaging.

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compostable coffee packaging
Compostable coffee bags have a number of different qualities compared to biodegradable packaging

What are compostable and biodegradable materials?

Biodegradable packaging is made from materials that will eventually break down into smaller particles. The time it takes to degrade depends on the item and the environment it is in.

For example light, water, oxygen levels, and temperature all play a part in how long the degradation process will take.

Technically, there are many products that can be considered biodegradable, as the only prerequisite is that it needs to degrade. However, to be officially labelled as biodegradable in line with ISO 14855-1, 90% of a product must break down within six months.

The biodegradable packaging market has grown rapidly over the past few years, and was valued at $82 billion in 2020. Many major brands (including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle) have either moved to biodegradable products or pledged to use them more in the future.

Compostable packaging, meanwhile, is made from materials that can break down into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass (renewable energy) under the right set of conditions.

The European standard EN 13432 requires that compostable materials must have disintegrated within 12 weeks of disposal. Furthermore, they must completely biodegrade within six months. 

A warm, humid environment with elevated levels of oxygen is the optimal setting for composting to take place within. This encourages a process called anaerobic digestion, whereby bacteria break down organic matter.

Food-based businesses are looking into compostable packaging as an alternative to plastic or biodegradable materials. As an example, Waitrose uses compostable packaging for its readymade meals, while Conscious Chocolate uses packaging with vegetable-based inks.

Essentially, all compostable packaging is biodegradable, but not all biodegradable packaging is compostable.

compostable coffee packaging
Compostable coffee packaging has become a popular choice among specialty roasters

The pros & cons of compostable coffee packaging

The critical advantage of compostable materials is that they break down into organic compounds that do not harm the environment. In fact, these compounds can even be beneficial to the soil.

Two out of five UK households either compost at home or have access to shared composting facilities. This allows people to take advantage of composting to grow fruits, vegetables, and flowers, boosting sustainability and encouraging insects and birds to visit their gardens.

However, one of the issues surrounding compostable materials is that of cross-contamination. When people recycle at home, the recycling is sent to their local material recovery facility (MRF).

Compostable materials can contaminate the rest of the recyclable materials at the MRF, preventing them from being processed.

In 2016, for example, 30% of mixed recyclables were contaminated by non-recyclable material.

This means these materials ended up polluting oceans and landfill sites. This necessitates the correct labeling of compostable materials, so that customers can dispose of them correctly and without compromising other recyclables.

biodegradable coffee bags
Biodegradable coffee bags can often be disposed of along with general waste

The pros & cons of biodegradable coffee packaging

The advantage of biodegradable material over compostable material is that it is easier to dispose of. Users can place biodegradable items straight into general waste bins. 

These items will then either biodegrade in a landfill or be converted into energy. More specifically, biodegradable material can be broken down into biogas, which can then be turned into biofuel.

Biofuel use is increasing worldwide, accounting for 7% of all fuel consumption in the US in 2019. This means biodegradable materials not only break down, but can be ‘recycled’ into something useful, too.

Although biodegradable materials do break down, the amount of time it takes to do so can vary. For example, an orange peel takes about six months to break down entirely. In contrast, a plastic carrier bag can take as long as 1,000 years to degrade completely.

Once a biodegradable product has broken down, it can potentially have a negative impact on the surrounding ecosystem.

For example, the aforementioned plastic carrier bag will break down into microplastics that can harm wildlife. Ultimately, these particles can even work their way into our food chain.

What does this mean for coffee roasting businesses? Most importantly, owners must take care to choose packaging that is genuinely biodegradable and that will not further pollute the environment.

compostable coffee packaging
It’s important to weigh up the pros and cons before making a decision about coffee packaging materials

Choosing the right option for your coffee business

Single-use plastics are now on the decline in the hospitality industry, with many countries around the world banning their use entirely.

The UK government has already banned the supply of plastic straws and stirrers, and is now looking to ban single-use plastic cutlery and polystyrene cups.

This means that if coffee roasting businesses have not looked into compostable or biodegradable packaging, there has never been a better time than now.

But which option is the best for your business? It depends on a number of factors, including the location of your premises, your budget, and the recycling facilities available to you.

However, whether you choose to use compostable or biodegradable takeaway cups or bags, one of the most crucial things is to ensure you label your packaging accurately.

Customers are taking their own steps to become more sustainable. According to one study, nine out of ten people are concerned about the current state of the environment, with 83% of those surveyed actively taking part in some kind of recycling.

By labelling packaging as either compostable or biodegradable, customers will know exactly what they need to do to dispose of it in an environmentally friendly way.

custom coffee bags
MTPak Coffee can help you find the perfect bags and cups for your coffee business

MTPak Coffee offers a range of compostable and biodegradable packaging to suit all business needs, including kraft paper, rice paper, and polylactic acid (PLA), which is made from starchy plants.

For information about our compostable coffee bags, contact our team.

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Compostable vs. biodegradable coffee packaging: What’s the difference?

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