Over the last few years, the number of people around the world who identify as vegan has soared. Between 2014 and 2017 alone, the percentage of US citizens that labelled themselves “vegan” increased six-fold, while a recent survey found that nearly 40% of millennials avoid any products made from animals.
To cater to this growing trend, many businesses have started including more vegan options into their line of offerings. Meanwhile, others have entirely overhauled the way they operate, abandoning anything that includes animal products in favour of plant-based alternatives.
Although coffee is vegan, the way it’s packaged isn’t necessarily always free from animal products. Some of the additives, adhesives, and dyes used in conventional packaging contain substances that mean it cannot be officially declared “vegan-friendly”, while its impact on wildlife when thrown away may also raise issues. For specialty roasters, this can affect profits if customers decide to go in search of coffee brands that offer more vegan-friendly products.
Read on to find out about vegan-friendly coffee packaging and why specialty roasters should consider adopting it for their coffee.
Is Conventional Plastic Coffee Packaging Vegan?
Despite the availability of sustainable alternatives, conventional plastic coffee packaging is still in widespread use. Not only is it durable and low cost, it’s also highly effective at preserving the all-important freshness of coffee.
While it can be difficult to determine whether plastic is vegan-friendly, a significant body of research suggests that it isn’t. The main reason concerns the addition of animal products to improve the material properties of certain plastics.
In a 2005 article by Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, it was reported that two of the most widely used plastics, polyethylene and polypropylene, contain additives of animal origin to improve material properties and/or to aid in processing of raw polymers.
States the report: “The principal animal-derived components (ADC) used today are various salts of stearic acid, a long-chain (C18) fatty acid. Derived from the rendering of beef fat (tallow), stearates comprise approximately 100,200 parts per million in typical raw polyethylene.
“When added to polymer formulations, calcium and aluminium stearate salts (among others) impart lubricity, preventing the polymer from sticking to metal surfaces during extrusion or mould release. These additives are often referred to as “slip” agents.”
However, it’s not just additives that can have an impact on plastic packaging’s vegan-friendly status: its effect on wildlife once disposed of is also problematic.
According to a review by the Australian government’s science agency, CSIRO, ingesting plastic was found to be responsible for killing animals across 80 different species, including dolphins, whales, and seagulls. Among the worst offenders were plastic bags and flexible packaging.
In the broader sense of the word, veganism is defined as avoiding anything that causes harm to animals. With clear evidence of the potential for plastic to damage to the habitats of marine life, it’s difficult therefore to argue that coffee packaging made from plastic is “vegan-friendly”.
Which Coffee Packaging Materials Are Vegan-Friendly?
As concerns over the amount of single-use plastics in circulation have grown, many specialty coffee roasters have switched to more sustainable alternatives to package their coffee. Kraft paper, polylactic acid (PLA), and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) have become popular options, offering strength, durability, and high-barrier protection against external factors.
These materials require less energy to produce and can typically be recycled or composted when disposed of in a commercial facility. However, while there’s no official definition of vegan packaging, to be considered 100% vegan-friendly they must contain no animal products and have no impact on wildlife when thrown away.
Let’s take a look at three of the most popular materials for sustainable packaging.
Kraft paper is one of the oldest packaging materials in existence. To produce, treated wood pulp is processed to create a strong material that can be layered or laminated for extra strength. Because it’s made from natural ingredients, no harmful byproducts are released during production.
When left untreated, kraft paper is fully recyclable and compostable, meaning it will break down without poisoning wildlife or soil. Yet even when it’s laminated with PLA to improve its barrier properties, it is still compostable and recyclable providing it’s sent to a commercial facility.
In recent years, manufacturers have started experimenting with kraft paper as a certified-vegan alternative to animal leather.
PLA is a bioplastic made by fermenting renewable resources such as corn starch. A carefully controlled fermentation process creates lactic acid instead of ethanol which is then polymerised into PLA.
As it’s made from abundantly available plants, large volumes of it can be created without diverting crops away from feedstock. It can also have biocompatible qualities, which means it can safely be used in medical implants. These implants will eventually degrade and leave the body after providing temporary protection or a structural framework.
Despite being compostable within just 90 days in a commercial facility, PLA shouldn’t be left exposed to animals. For PLA to be truly vegan-friendly, it should be processed after use at a dedicated facility and kept away from plant and animal life.
Used in everything from shopping bags to CD cases, LDPE is a thermoplastic characterised by its properties as a thin, lightweight, and flexible material that can withstand temperatures of up to 80°C.
Unlike PVC, LDPE isn’t regarded as a “bad” plastic by most eco watch dogs. Potentially toxic industrial chemicals involved in its manufacture, however, include butane, benzene and vinyl acetate.
LDPE is technically not vegan, as it comes from the same sources as conventional plastic and can be difficult to recycle. Unless a dedicated collection system is created to collect used LDPE materials, it will end up compromising recycling equipment or contaminating landfills. In landfill, it takes a similar amount of time to break down as conventional plastic.
As the number of people who identify as vegan grows, it’s important for specialty roasters to ensure their packaging is 100% vegan friendly. A failure to do so could turn consumers away from your products and lead to a loss of profits.
At MTPak Coffee, we can help you find the perfect vegan-friendly coffee packaging that’s both sustainable, free from animal products, and won’t harm wildlife when thrown away.