Whenever the topic of plastic waste comes up, the focus tends to be on whole items such as straws, bottles, and bags – and rightly so. In 2018, around 400 million tons of virgin plastic were created, with production set to almost quadruple by 2050.
These rising levels of plastic manufacture, added to the difficulty of recycling plastic products, are having a detrimental impact on the environment. However, plastic usage is leading to another issue that’s not quite as visible: microplastics.
Defined as fragments of any type of plastic less than 5mm in length, concerns around the impact of microplastics on the planet have heightened in recent years. It’s estimated that more than 42,000 tonnes of these small fragments are deposited into the environment each year, causing problems for wildlife and ecosystems around the world.
To tackle this growing problem and cater to the demands of consumers, many specialty coffee roasters have switched to more sustainable options for their packaging. Read on to find out about the importance of reducing microplastics and what you can do to help.
What Are Microplastics?
Small, ubiquitous, and virtually imperishable, microplastics have come increasingly under the microscope in recent years. Often no bigger than a sesame seed, these tiny particles can be found along coastlines, in the oceans, and in the digestive systems of wildlife.
According to the Marine Conservation Society, there are two types of microplastics: primary and secondary.
Primary microplastics are small fragments of plastic that have been purposefully manufactured, such as microfibres from clothes and beads from personal care products. Secondary microplastics, on the other hand, are derived from larger plastic items that have broken into smaller pieces over time. They can usually be identified by their irregular shape.
Primary microplastics first appeared in products around fifty years ago as natural ingredients were replaced with polyethylene plastic. As recently as 2012, these microbeads, or pellets, were considered harmless and were often included in products like facial scrubs or toothpaste.
However, in 2015, former US president Barack Obama banned the use of microbeads in US beauty products after studies revealed how they could negatively affect wildlife through ingestion.
Fish and shellfish are particularly susceptible to ingestion of microplastics in the ocean, which can then be passed onto humans via consumption. It’s estimated that an average European seafood consumer ingests around 11,000 plastic particles a year, both from primary and secondary microplastics.
What’s The Impact Of Microplastics On The Environment?
All plastic waste, regardless of size, is detrimental to the environment. Not only does it take hundreds of years to break down, it can disrupt wildlife and cause marine pollution.
However, microplastics pose a slightly more specific problem. Their small size and ubiquitousness makes it easy for them to enter the food chain via ingestion. Scientists have found microplastics in the digestive systems of hundreds of aquatic species, many of which are consumed by humans.
While there is a lack of research into the long term impact on humans, it’s thought that microplastics can block digestive tracts, diminish the urge to eat, and alter feeding behaviour in marine wildlife, all of which reduce growth and reproductive output.
Further studies from German researchers show that microplastics can also impact the habitats of wildlife. Soils containing high levels of microplastics were found to retain more moisture and have significant impacts on nutrient levels that are essential for many organisms to survive.
“Plastic fragments alter the structure and chemistry of the soil. Crops grown in soil containing plastic debris have lower yield, height, and root weight,” writes Laura Parker in an article for National Geographic.
Can Microplastics Affect Health?
Although microplastics were discovered around the 1960s, it’s only recently that they’ve come to the attention of the wider scientific community. As such, the impact of microplastics on human health is still relatively unknown.
While some understand the ingestion of microplastics to be of little consequence, others disagree. In an article for the Guardian, Dr Douglas Rader says that enough is known about microplastics to worry about them, pointing out that many microplastics contain chemicals linked to reproductive and hormonal disruption, and cancer.
Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to escape microplastics. Not only are they in seafood, they are also in the water we drink and the air we breathe. It’s estimated that the average person consumes as much as five grams of plastic every week, the equivalent of a credit card. Those who work closely with nylons and polyesters, such as factory workers, have been show to have reduced lung capacity and irritation due to the inhalation of microplastics.
In the article for National Geographic, Lauren Parker states that there is a lack of research into the effect of microplastics on humans, but that the impact on marine wildlife should be recognised.
“Microplastics have been detected in drinking water, salt, and other food,” she writes. “So far, no harm has been demonstrated. However, for fish and other marine wildlife, studies have found that microplastics disrupt reproductive systems, stunt growth, diminish appetite, and cause tissue inflammation and liver damage.”
How Sustainable Coffee Packaging Can Reduce Plastic Waste
Over the years, the coffee industry has been responsible for its fair share of plastic waste. Single-use plastics, such as stirrers, straws, and takeaway lids are the worst offenders. In the UK alone, an estimated 2.5 billion takeaway cups are disposed of every year, the majority of which go to landfill or end up in our oceans. Inevitably, this has contributed significantly to the number of microplastics in the environment too.
As a result, many specialty coffee roasters have started exploring ways of becoming more sustainable and cutting down the amount of plastic they use in their roasteries. One of the effective approaches is the adoption of sustainable coffee packaging.
Sustainable coffee packaging is any type of packaging that increases the life cycle of the materials used and reduces its overall environmental impact. It often contributes to a circular economy in which the continual use of resources eliminates waste, as well as lowering the carbon footprint of each bag of coffee.
There are a number of different packaging materials on the market, which are both sustainable and preserve the coffee inside. The most popular include kraft paper, rice paper, and polylactic acid (PLA). Untreated, these materials are all compostable in commercial facilities, where they break down within a few months without releasing any toxins into the environment. They are made from plant-based sources, such as cornstarch and maize.
When adopting sustainable coffee packaging, it’s also important to include recyclable degassing valves to the pouches. Degassing valves are one-way vents that allow volatile gases to escape without letting oxygen in. These can cause problems for consumers as they often have to be removed before the pouch can be recycled. By making sure the degassing valves are fully recyclable, it will prevent the packaging from going to landfill.
Microplastics are a widespread issue that can no longer be ignored. They are found in all four corners of the globe and can cause a range of problems to wildlife.
As part of reducing the number of microplastics in the environment, it’s crucial for specialty coffee roasters to switch to sustainable packaging for their products. Not only will it help eliminate plastic waste, it will also showcase a commitment to sustainability, a quality that’s highly valued by today’s coffee consumers.
Furthermore, with widespread restrictions on microplastics increasingly coming into force, it could be advantageous for roasters to make the switch before it becomes mandatory.
At MTPak Coffee, we offer a selection of sustainable coffee packaging for specialty roasters, from kraft paper pouches to PLA-lined takeaway cups. Our BPA-free degassing valves are fully recyclable, while our ok compost HOME certification means that many of our products can be disposed of in home composts.
For more information on our sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team here.
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