When you hear the words “rice paper”, you might think of the semi-translucent material used to make spring rolls, pancakes, and other savoury dishes.
Yet edible rice paper differs significantly from the variety used to package products. Offered as a sustainably sourced and biodegradable alternative to plastic, rice paper for packaging is becoming a favourite among specialty roasters seeking a greener solution for their coffee.
I spoke with Laura Fornero, Digital Projects Manager for Producer Roaster Forum, to find out more about the benefits of rice paper, and why it’s become a popular choice for packaging coffee.
What Is Rice Paper & How Is It Made?
Rice paper is in some ways a misnomer. Edible rice paper is made with rice, but often includes tapioca, potato and other ingredients. Rice paper used for packaging, on the other hand, is made from a shrub called Tetrapanax papyrifer, or the rice-paper plant, but can also include mulberry, hemp, bamboo, or rice straw pulp.
Both have existed for centuries, and have fulfilled different purposes along the way. More than 1,500 years ago, ancient Chinese civilisations invented non-edible rice paper for calligraphy and painting. As it’s moth-resistant and can preserve ink for centuries, it quickly became popular in nearby countries.
Traditionally, rice paper is made by soaking and cleaning a plant’s fibres, bark, and pith in water. The pulp is stretched, pressed, rolled between screens, and cut to size. This creates a non-fibrous sheet of textured, off-white paper.
It’s thought that when Europeans first imported rice paper from China, they mistook its title for the edible crop – and the name has stuck with it to this day.
You can still find traditional Chinese craftspeople who make Xuan paper by hand. It’s a painstaking process that takes years to perfect, and creates an expensive paper that’s reserved for fine artwork and calligraphy.
However, an affordable, accessible, and mass-produced version of rice paper is created by mechanically processing renewable resources, such as quintan tree bark and bamboo. This is the rice paper used in coffee packaging today.
Why Is Rice Paper Becoming Popular In Packaging?
Plastic has long been a popular packaging material among roasters thanks to its high tensile and tear strength. It is also an effective barrier against oxygen and aromas.
However, greater consumer interest in sustainable packaging and a willingness to pay more for biodegradable products has seen plastic fall out of favour in recent years.
For roasters looking for a sustainable packaging alternative, rice paper is a good option.
“Rice paper is strong and comes from renewable, bio-based sources, such as bark fibres. This makes it appealing for specialty roasters looking to show their commitment to sustainability,” Laura says.
It’s estimated that the international demand for hyper-degradable packaging, such as rice paper, is increasing by 6.9% a year, and the market is expected to be worth $2 billion USD by 2024. However, there’s a concern that these materials could have a high environmental cost or compete with food sources.
Materials used for rice paper, like bamboo and quintan bark, go some way towards addressing these concerns. That’s because manufacturers can peel quintan bark from the tree to make paper, and the bark will regrow again and again.
Certain species of bamboo can grow by up to a metre a day, and can be harvested annually. It doesn’t require healthy soil, abundant water, fertiliser, or the absence of pests to thrive, and it reuptakes carbon dioxide, thus actively reducing carbon emissions.
How Does Rice Paper Measure Up In Comparison To Other Materials?
While rice paper is sustainably produced and biodegradable, these attributes make for reliable coffee packaging.
Coffee packaging must be strong but flexible, and keep oxygen and moisture out. When coffee comes into contact with oxygen for an extended period of time, it can lose its freshness and become stale.
Packaging also needs to protect the product as it travels from roaster to consumer, whether a short drive or a transcontinental journey.
In 2017, the Journal of Food Safety and Food Quality published a review on biodegradable packaging in the food industry. It found, contrary to popular belief, that many biodegradable bags are strong, flexible, and resistant to breakage and damage. They can also resist moisture and temperature changes.
Nevertheless, Laura tells me that rice paper is usually layered when used in packaging to increase its strength and protective qualities.
“It’s similar to kraft paper in that it requires additional layers to be used for packaging roasted coffee beans,” she explains.
A common inner layer for coffee packaging is aluminium foil, which is highly effective at protecting the coffee inside from light, oxygen, and moisture.
At MTPak Coffee, all our biodegradable packaging materials, from rice paper to kraft paper, can be upgraded with extra layers to maintain maximum freshness.
What To Consider Before Picking Rice Paper Packaging
Rice paper is an effective material for storing and protecting your coffee. However, it will often need to be treated in a certain way before it’s ready, which can make it more difficult to recycle or biodegrade.
“Roasters must make sure they understand what rice paper is, and the necessary additions before it’s used to package coffee,” Laura explains.
“In its most basic form, rice paper has a soft texture, and can be slightly translucent. But to keep your coffee fresh and extend its shelf life, you’ll probably need to add inner layers and outer coatings to the rice paper packaging.
“This will make it more opaque to prevent light from entering, as well as making it waterproof,” she adds.
This may seem like less of a concern for roasters supplying small batches of coffee. Nonetheless, it’s worth considering if there’s a possibility your coffee won’t be consumed within a few days after being packaged. Additional protective layers not only provide customers with an extended window for consuming their coffee, but also ensure the product is at its best when it is consumed.
While adding additional layers and coating to rice paper doesn’t negate its eco-friendliness, it can make it more difficult to recycle or biodegrade, depending on the materials used.
If this is the case, roasters might consider offering a bag collection scheme or customising their packaging to include instructions on how customers can correctly dispose of their empty pouches.
Rice paper might be one of the world’s oldest materials, but it continues to be a useful option in today’s market. It’s cost-effective, comes from a renewable source, and offers good flexibility and strength.
MTPak Coffee can help you find a complete packaging solution that uses rice paper either by itself or with additional layers for preserving freshness. All our packaging is fully customisable, from the pouch size to the information on labels.
For more information on our rice paper coffee packaging, contact our team.
Photo credits: MTPak Coffee
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