Oxo-degradable plastic: What is it & should it be used to package coffee?

Jane Merchant
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June 3, 2021
oxodegradable plastic

Plastic pollution is a widespread issue. It affects wildlife and plants, oceans and rivers, beaches and marine life. It can end up in the digestive system of fish, entangle birds, create hazardous chemicals, and cause health problems in humans.

While plastic pollution stems from a range of sources, one of the worst culprits is product packaging: an estimated 40% of all plastic produced is used for packaging, the majority of which is single-use.

As a result, many businesses, including specialty roasters, have switched to more sustainable alternatives to package their products. Not only has this been important for the environment, it’s also been crucial to maintaining a loyal customer base. According to a recent survey, 43% of US consumers cite environmental impact as extremely or very important for packaging.

But for those looking for environmentally friendly materials it can be difficult to navigate through the sea of terms. Words like “biodegradable” and “compostable” often cause confusion, making it a challenge to find materials that are genuinely sustainable.

One term that has increasingly appeared in relation to packaging is “oxo-degradable plastic”. But what does it mean? Is it a good option for packaging? And can it help reduce the plastic problem?

Read next: How sustainable coffee packaging can reduce microplastics

oxodegradable plastics

Defining oxo-degradable plastic

Put simply, oxo-degradable plastics are conventional plastics mixed with additives to help foster degradation.

Unlike biodegradable (or oxo-biodegradable) plastics that break down into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass, oxo-degradable plastics quickly fragment into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics. These resulting microplastics remain in the environment indefinitely.

Oxo-degradable plastics are often put forward as a solution to issues created by littered plastic. However, because they break down into microplastics rather than safely into organic matter, this is often disputed.

According to the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA), oxo-degradable plastics are unable to be recycled as they contain powders that render plastic polymers unstable when recycled together. It also claims that they lead to confusion among consumers and retailers who may consider them compostable.

But not everyone agrees. Founder and chairman of the Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association, Michael Stephen, says that oxo-degradable plastics are not intended for products that can be recycled, such as PET bottles. Instead, he explains, they work well as single-use items that are not reusable and might otherwise become litter.

Because they quickly fragment into smaller pieces, he also claims one of their chief benefits lies in the fact they don’t take up room in landfill where they would generate methane.

coffee packaging

Should roasters use oxo-degradable plastic packaging for their coffee?

For specialty roasters, it’s become more important than ever to adopt sustainable coffee packaging. Growing demand from consumers for eco-friendly products means that businesses can no longer ignore the need to reduce their impact on the environment.

This trend has only strengthened as a result of the global pandemic. A 2020 research report from German utilities company E.ON shows that more than one-third of UK consumers say they’re buying more products from companies with strong environmental credentials. Meanwhile, a further 80% say they’re planning to purchase goods from businesses that have made a concerted effort to be environmentally friendly.

However, it’s not just consumers who are pressing the issue: in 2019, the European Union issued a directive prohibiting the sale of products made from oxo-degradable plastics, with an outright ban planned this year. It cited the risk microplastics pose on the environment as the chief reason for this decision.

As such, opting for oxo-degradable plastic packaging for coffee is not recommended for specialty roasters. Not only could it impact sales if consumers turn to other brands offering coffee in sustainable packaging, potential bans could render a roastery’s entire packaging stock unfit for use virtually overnight.

sustainable coffee packaging

Choosing sustainable coffee packaging

While oxo-degradable plastic packaging may not be the best option for coffee, there are a range of sustainable alternatives on the market. However, there are a few things to consider before committing to one particular option.

Freshness

The moment coffee is roasted, the steady decline of freshness begins. External factors including oxygen, light, moisture, and heat all start to affect the coffee, causing it to lose aromatic compounds and become stale.

As a specialty roaster, it’s your job to prevent exposure to these externalities and preserve freshness right up until the point of consumption. If not, consumers may decide to try other coffee brands with a longer shelf life.

However, not all sustainable packaging materials preserve freshness equally. Some may be less resistant to light, while others can slightly distort the flavours and aromas. If using a compostable material like rice paper, it’s a good idea to ensure it’s laminated with polylactic acid (PLA). This helps to improve its barrier properties and preserve freshness, from roastery to consumer.

Adding recyclable degassing valves is also a good idea, as this allows the coffee to release carbon dioxide after roasting without letting oxygen enter the bag.

Cost

Most specialty roasters will be working on relatively fine profit margins, which means keeping costs down wherever possible is of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, some sustainable packaging materials can be more costly than plastic materials, particularly if they require additional layers.

One option is to opt for stock bags with single-colour logos. This helps roasters stay within budget while still including their branding on the front of their coffee packaging. Stock bags can often be ordered in low quantities too, helping to further reduce costs.

Branding

Packaging is often dubbed “the secret salesman” owing to its effectiveness as a marketing tool. It is usually the first contact consumers will have with a brand and plays a key role in attracting attention when on the shelf.

To build brand identity and stand out from the competition, coffee packaging should include the roaster’s branding, whether it’s a simple logo or a fully customised design. While kraft paper can be used to portray an authentic look and feel, materials like low-density polyethylene (LDPE) provide a good surface on which to print colourful and attractive branding.

Although LDPE is a plastic, it is fully recyclable when disposed of correctly, providing a sustainable option for businesses.

recyclable coffee packaging

Terms like “biodegradable”, “compostable”, and “oxo-degradable” are a constant source of confusion for both businesses and consumers. What may seem like a sustainable option at first may turn out to be damaging to the environment in ways that were unforeseen.

For specialty roasters, it’s important to carry out sufficient research before committing to a material for your coffee packaging. Once you’ve chosen a material, you must then ensure customers know exactly how to dispose of their empty pouches to make sure it retains its environmental value proposition.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of fully sustainable coffee packaging materials, low VOC water-based inks, and recyclable degassing valves. Our team of experts can help you find the best materials for your coffee, whether it’s recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable.

For information about our sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team here.

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Oxo-degradable plastic: What is it & should it be used to package coffee?

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