What Is Compostable Coffee Packaging?

Enrique Moreno
January 18, 2021
penny farthing coffee kraft paper pouch

Since the 1950s, plastic packaging has been responsible for vast quantities of waste, most of which has ended up going to landfill and our oceans. Yet as people are becoming increasingly aware of the implications of plastic packaging, more and more eco-friendly alternatives have become available.

One of the most popular alternatives is compostable packaging. Made from organic matter which disintegrates naturally over time, compostable packaging helps businesses reduce their environmental impact and create more sustainable products.

Read on to find out about compostable coffee packaging and its benefits for specialty coffee roasters.

See also: What Is Rice Paper Coffee Packaging?

compost bin

What Is Compostable Packaging?

Compostable packaging is made from organic matter that completely breaks down to produce nutrient-rich compost that leaves no environmentally damaging residue.

It requires an active microbial environment such as a compost heap to fully degrade; when placed in commercial composting conditions, it will typically disintegrate into carbon dioxide (CO2), water, and organic matter within 10-12 weeks. The compost produced can then be used for agricultural and horticultural purposes.

Although the terms “compostable” and “biodegradable” are often used interchangeably, the two have different meanings. Nature’s Path Organic points out that while all compostable materials are biodegradable, not all biodegradable materials are compostable. This is largely down to the production of “humus”.

Humus is the organic component of soil, which is formed by the decomposition of organic materials by microorganisms in the soil. Biodegradable materials return to nature and can disappear completely, yet they sometimes leave behind metal residue, whereas compostable materials only produce humus. 

In other words, compostable materials are defined by their ability to produce soil or fertiliser, while biodegradable simply refers to a material that breaks down.

A reliable way of determining whether packaging is compostable is through certifications, such as OK compost.

Packaging or products featuring the OK compost INDUSTRIAL label are guaranteed compostable in an industrial composting plant, which applies to all components, inks, and additives. Similarly, OK compost HOME guarantees complete compostability in garden compost heaps. These certifications are issued by European certification body TÜV AUSTRIA.

kraft paper packaging

Which Coffee Packaging Materials Are Compostable?

Due to growing concerns over the impact of packaging on the environment, specialty coffee roasters have increasingly turned to compostable materials for their coffee packaging. It has become important not only to create a more eco-friendly supply chain, but also to attract consumers who value sustainability.

Indeed, Business Insider article, Dr. Matt Johnson, a professor at Hult International Business School, says that consumers are willing to pay a premium for products from a sustainable brand over a less visibly sustainable competitor.

One of the most popular compostable materials used in coffee packaging is kraft paper. Kraft paper is made by boiling wood chips in sodium sulfide and sodium hydroxide to chemically convert them into wood pulp. Once the pulp is formed, it is screened to remove larger pieces, before being washed to remove any residual fluids.

The resulting pulp can then be made into compostable coffee pouches of various shapes and sizes that are both strong and flexible. Under the right conditions and when left untreated, kraft paper can take as little as two to six weeks to decompose.

Another compostable material used by specialty coffee roasters is polylactic acid (PLA). PLA is a bioplastic made by fermenting carbohydrates sourced renewably from crops like maize, cornstarch, and sugarcane. The fermentation process produces resin filaments that can be shaped, moulded, and coloured to suit a range of needs.

In an industrial composting facility, PLA-based products can take as little as 90 days to decompose, in contrast to a 1,000 years for conventional plastics. This, along with the fact that it has similar properties to petroleum-based plastic, has made it an attractive option for specialty coffee roasters.

coffee bag among ferns

What Are The Challenges Of Compostable Coffee Packaging For Roasters?

While compostable packaging offers specialty coffee roasters the opportunity to create a more sustainable product, there remain a number of challenges 

For coffee to remain fresh, it requires tightly sealed packaging that protects it from exposure to oxygen, moisture, and light. However, some compostable materials, such as kraft paper, are not particularly effective at preserving freshness when left untreated.

They often require the addition of one or more layers to ensure the packaging is waterproof and airtight so that it keeps the coffee fresh for up to 12 months. These extra layers are usually made from non-compostable materials like aluminium foil or low-density polyethylene (LDPE), which means the packaging can no longer be disposed of in an industrial compost centre.

This problem has led to a focus on the testing of compostable laminates. Management consulting firm McKinsey & Company reports that several paper producers are developing flexible paper-based packaging with water-based coatings that can act as barriers against odours, oxygen, and oil.

When choosing multilayer coffee packaging, it’s important to make sure that all components are fully biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable. This applies to layers, inks, labels, and degassing valves.

At MTPak Coffee, we use water-based printing inks and coatings with low volatile organic compounds that are compostable and easily removed during the recycling process. Our degassing valves are compostable and BPA-free, which means they do not have to be removed before disposing of the coffee bag.

beanbeast coffee packaging

In its sustainability mission statement, “Bean to Bin and Beyond”, the British Coffee Association says it aims for zero-waste packaging by 2025. This involves switching to 100% recyclable, compostable, or reusable packaging across all products, with no waste ending up in landfill.

However, for specialty coffee roasters it can be difficult to strike a balance between preserving freshness and offering a sustainable product.

Our packaging solutions will both protect your coffee and provide consumers with a pouch that can be disposed of in compost heaps once empty. MTPak Coffee’s kraft paper and PLA packaging are certified by TÜV Austria as OK compost HOME and OK compost INDUSTRIAL, while our degassing valves are also compostable.

For more information on our compostable coffee packaging, contact our team here.

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