Plastic packaging has come a long way since it first appeared in the 1950s. When it entered the market, conventional plastic (made from petroleum-based raw materials), was celebrated as the solution to packaging for everything.
However, growing awareness of its slow decomposition and the discovery of microplastic pollution in oceans have led manufacturers across the world to look for more eco-friendly alternatives.
One of these alternatives is the bioplastic polylactic acid, or PLA. Biodegradable, cost-effective, and easy to produce, it’s become a popular choice for packaging goods of every kind.
To find out more about how PLA can be used to package coffee, and how it can make the sector more sustainable, I spoke with Elyne Yang from MTPak Coffee.
What Is PLA?
PLA is one of the most highly produced bioplastics in the world, and is found in everything, from textiles to cosmetics. It is toxin-free, which has made it popular in the food and beverage industry where it is commonly used to package a wide variety of items, including coffee.
PLA is made from the fermentation of carbohydrates from renewable resources such as maize, cornstarch, and sugarcane. The fermentation produces resin filaments that have similar characteristics to petroleum-based plastic.
The filaments can be shaped, molded, and coloured to suit a range of needs. They can also undergo simultaneous extrusion to form a multilayered or shrink-wrapped film.
One of the principal benefits of PLA is that it is significantly more eco-friendly than its petroleum-based counterpart. While the manufacture of conventional plastic is estimated to use as much as 200,000 barrels of oil a day in the US alone, PLA is made from renewable and compostable sources.
The production of PLA also involves significantly less energy. One study suggests that switching from petroleum-based to corn-based plastics would cut US greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter.
In controlled composting environments, PLA-based products can take as little as 90 days to decompose, in contrast to a 1,000 years for conventional plastics. This has made it an attractive option for eco-conscious manufacturers across a number of sectors.
Using PLA To Package Your Coffee
Modern-day coffee roasters not only require packaging that preserves the quality of their coffee, they also need it to align with their sustainable values. However, it can be a struggle to find environmentally friendly materials that will effectively preserve the quality of the coffee inside.
Using packaging made from PLA ticks both of these boxes. Like traditional foil-lined bags, PLA coffee packaging ensures the product is kept fresh, yet it is considerably more eco-friendly. When a foil-lined bag is thrown away, it can take decades to decompose, compared to the few months it takes for PLA to do so.
MTPak Coffee’s Chief Assistant, Elyne Yang, tells me that PLA packaging provides the perfect middle ground for coffee roasters.
“PLA is biodegradable and eco-friendly,” she says. “It also offers excellent stability, and it’s solvent resistant.”
Experts state that coffee packaging should protect its contents from moisture and oxygen for up to 12 months, as both can have an adverse effect on quality and freshness. Yet the stability Elyne mentions is also essential.
This is because coffee tends to spend long periods of time in transit, which means it must be able to handle bumps, jolts, and friction along the way. PLA’s tensile strength of 7,000 psi means it is able to survive long journeys, making it a great packaging material for coffee.
Advantages Of Using PLA Packaging
Beyond its sustainable and protective qualities, PLA offers several advantages for coffee roasters.
One of these is the ease with which it can customised with different branding and design features. For example, brands seeking more rustic-looking packaging can opt for kraft paper on the outside, and PLA on the inside.
They can also choose to add a transparent PLA window so that customers can view the contents of the bag, or include a range of coloured designs and logos. PLA is compatible with digital printing, which means, using eco-friendly inks, you can create a completely biodegradable product. An eco-friendly product can help communicate your commitment to sustainability to consumers, and improve customer loyalty.
Foreword Coffee Roasters is one company that has taken full advantage of PLA’s sustainable qualities in this way. They’ve launched a tremendously popular “Return & Reuse” initiative, in which customers who purchase their coffee in PLA-lined bags can return their empty ones and refill them at a discounted price.
Nevertheless, like all materials, PLA packaging has its limitations. Elyne tells me that although it requires high heat and moisture to effectively decompose, PLA is best for coffee that will be quickly consumed.
“The lifespan is shorter [than other plastics],” she says. “Therefore, PLA should be used for products that will be consumed less than six months [after packaging].”
For specialty coffee roasters, this could mean using PLA to package small volumes of coffee for a subscription service.
If you’re looking for customised packaging that maintains the quality of your coffee, while adhering to sustainable practices, PLA could be the ideal solution. It’s strong, affordable, malleable, and compostable, making it a great choice for roasters looking to communicate their commitment to being eco-friendly.
At MTPak Coffee, we offer PLA packaging across a range of product shapes and sizes, so you can choose the right look for your brand.
For more information on PLA packaging for coffee, contact our team.
Photo credits: MTPak, Doug Beckers
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