How To Recycle Different Types Of Coffee Packaging

Jane Merchant
December 28, 2020
recyclable coffee packaging

While the majority of specialty coffee roasters turn their attention to more sustainable practices, finding packaging that both protects their coffee and has a limited impact on the environment can be challenging.

A popular choice is to use recyclable packaging, which can either be disposed of at home or dropped off at a specialised facility. Yet with so many different options available, knowing exactly how to recycle each material can be confusing.

I spoke with MTPak Coffee Brand Ambassador Dulce Barrera to find out about the importance of recyclable packaging for specialty coffee roasters, and how each material can be effectively recycled.

See also: What Is Biodegradable Packaging?

kraft paper coffee packaging

Why Is Recyclable Packaging Important?

The World Bank predicts that by 2050, annual waste generation will have increased by 70% to 3.4 billion tonnes. A significant percentage of this waste can be attributed to the manufacture, preparation, and packaging of consumer products.

The coffee supply chain creates its fair share of waste. As a roaster, you have to get your coffee to customers in good shape, which requires packaging. Most customers discard their empty bags after use, which is why recyclable packaging is essential.

Today, consumers are increasingly aware of the negative impact of pollution on the wellbeing of the planet. Figures from the World Economic Forum suggest that nearly three-quarters of consumers are willing to adapt their habits to incorporate more sustainable packaging. 

Yet switching to recyclable packaging doesn’t just entice customers – research shows that the environmental benefits are promising. A study by Zero Waste Europe, Reloop, and the University of Utrecht indicates that reusable packaging generates fewer carbon emissions than single-use packaging, while reducing the amount of waste that ends up going to landfill or entering the ocean.

Dulce Barerra is in charge of quality control at Bella Vista Coffee, and regularly competes in coffee-tasting competitions. In 2019, she finished fourth in the World Cup Tasters Championships. She says it’s vital for roasters to pay attention to the recyclability of their coffee packaging “out of respect for the environment”. 

She also believes that the behaviour of one member of the supply chain can have positive reverberations, helping to “promote good practices throughout”.

recycling kraft paper coffee packaging

Recycling Kraft Paper & Rice Paper Packaging

Untreated kraft paper packaging is 100% biodegradable and compostable. It is made by boiling wood chips in sodium sulfide and sodium hydroxide to chemically convert them into wood pulp.

This process removes a polymer called lignin from the pulp, as lignin binds cellulose fibres together at a microscopic level. Once the pulp is formed, it is then screened to remove larger pieces, before being washed to remove any residual fluids. The resulting pulp can then be made into a variety of paper products, including kraft paper.

Once kraft paper packaging is discarded, it goes to a facility equipped to recycle or separate its various layers. The facility will pulp, clean, screen, de-ink, or bleach this paper into feedstock or other paper items.

As with many recyclable products, one of the main challenges when recycling kraft paper is contamination. This usually occurs in the form of food waste, dirt, or oil, and can significantly reduce the quality of the recycled product.

Coffee has a tendency to leave behind residual chaff and small, broken coffee beans, which should be cleaned before kraft paper is recycled. To ensure kraft paper packaging is effectively recycled, roasters might consider including a note on their packaging to remind customers to rinse their empty pouches before putting them in the recycling.

Another popular recyclable option for roasters is rice paper. According to Dulce, the appeal of rice paper “lies in its texture, unique appearance, and sustainable origin”. It is made using renewable sources such as Qintan tree bark and bamboo.

Rice paper packaging is compostable and biodegradable. This makes it landfill-friendly, as the bacteria or microorganisms present in the landfill will break them down within a few months. As rice paper is organic, it also does not generate carbon dioxide when it decomposes.

Both kraft paper and rice paper can be used in their most basic form for coffee packaging, however roasters often prefer to reinforce them with additional layers or laminates. Laminated layers of barrier film and opaque finish block out light, oxygen and moisture, helping to extend the shelf life of the coffee inside. 

While these films or barriers may still be recyclable, they could mean the packaging is no longer biodegradable and could change the way in which it’s recycled. If this is the case, roasters should include information on what consumers need to do to ensure they correctly dispose of their empty pouches. 

This also applies to degassing valves. Degassing valves are often added to coffee pouches either during or after manufacture to preserve freshness and allow the release of carbon dioxide. However, they are usually made from several layers, including a polyethylene plate and elastic disc, making them difficult to recycle. 

This may require consumers to cut off the degassing valves and dispose of them separately to ensure the rest of the packaging can be recycled.

PLA coffee packaging

Recycling PLA Packaging

Polylactic acid (PLA) packaging is made by fermenting carbohydrates from renewable resources such as maize, cornstarch, and sugarcane. The fermentation produces resin filaments that make it look, feel, and perform like petroleum-based plastic. Its high tensile strength, which protects the coffee against the bumps and jolts of long journeys in transit, has made it a popular choice among specialty roasters.

The key difference, however, is that PLA is eco-friendly. Not only does its manufacture require considerably less energy, the final product is biodegradable. In the right environment, PLA can take as little as 90 days to decompose, compared to over 1,000 years for petroleum-based plastic.

PLA is taken to specialised facilities where high temperatures and moisture levels help microorganisms break it down in a shorter period of time. 

If you’re using PLA for your coffee packaging, keep in mind that consumers can’t discard it with other plastics due to its lower melting temperature. It can be composted at home, but this will take significantly longer than at a specialised facility.

The easiest way to recycle PLA coffee packaging is to take it to specialised recycling centres available in most cities. 

Alternatively, roasters could offer a collection scheme to consumers to make recycling easier. For example, Foreword Coffee Roasters have launched a popular “Return & Reuse” initiative, in which customers who purchase their coffee in PLA-lined bags can return them once they are empty and refill them at a discounted price.

ldpe coffee pouch

Recycling LDPE Packaging

Coffee packaging made from low-density polyethylene LDPE is popular among roasters due to its flexibility, durability, and sustainable qualities.

Dulce tells me that unlike other materials, LDPE coffee bags only need one layer to protect their contents, rather than several. This makes them lighter and simpler to recycle, as each layer does not have to be separated.

“With LDPE, proper disposal is more simple for the end-user,” she says. “The stiff LDPE pouches used to contain coffee are less prone to contamination and, therefore, easier and cheaper to recycle.

“They also use less energy and raw material during manufacture.”

Like PLA, LDPE bags require treatment at specialised recycling centres. Once sorted, they are put through machines that transform the material into pellets for reuse or to make other LDPE products. 

New, dedicated facilities have been appearing in cities in response to the growing popularity of LDPE packaging. This is making recycling easier and more convenient, further elevating the material as an eco-friendly option for roasters.

coffee bag

At MTPak Coffee, we offer roasters a range of recyclable coffee packaging materials, from kraft paper to PLA. We can help you find a packaging solution that is both recyclable and able to effectively protect the coffee within.

Our water-based flexographic inks are also low in volatile organic compounds and our degassing valves are BPA-free, meaning they are both compostable or removable for recycling.

Find out more about recycling your coffee packaging by contacting our team here.

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