Can Coffee Packaging Be Recycled Everywhere In The World?

Nick Sebas
January 4, 2021
100% recyclable coffee pouch

While it’s clear that coffee consumers must do everything they can to limit their impact on the environment, it’s not always easy to recycle used coffee packaging.

For one, attitudes towards recycling vary from country to country, with a range of facilities, regulations, and attitudes wherever you go. Where in one region it may be as simple as putting your empty pouches into a recycling bin at home, in others it can require driving miles to the nearest roadside facility.

To learn more about global attitudes towards recycling, and what roasters can do to help, I spoke with MTPak Coffee Ambassador Dulce Barrera.

See also: Developing Coffee Subscription Packaging

kraft paper coffee packaging

Which Coffee Packaging Materials Are Recyclable?

From kraft paper to low-density polyethylene (LDPE), recyclable and reusable materials in coffee packaging have been widely used by roasters for a number of years. However, not all materials are equally easy to recycle, while added features such as degassing valves and extra layers can significantly change how we dispose of coffee packaging.

A popular recyclable packaging among roasters is LDPE. LDPE is a thin, lightweight, and flexible thermoplastic that can withstand temperatures of up to 80°C. It acts as a good barrier against moisture, oxygen, and light, making it highly effective at preserving the freshness of coffee.

On most coffee packaging, LDPE is denoted by the number “4” inside a triangle of clockwise arrows, which means it can be recycled providing your local authority accepts it. Recycled LDPE is usually made into new items including panelling, furniture, flooring, and bubble wrap.

However, UK plastic manufacturing company Coda Plastics state that as little as 5% of LDPE in the country is recycled due to a lack of information on plastic types and the facilities for their separation and disposal.

For that reason, some specialty coffee roasters who use LDPE coffee packaging offer collection schemes in which they collect used coffee bags and take them to specialised centres for recycling.

Modern Standard Coffee is one such company that offers this service. They work with US recycling company TerraCycle who collect used coffee bags for extrusion and pelletisation, before moulding them into various recycled plastic products. Modern Standard Coffee will then reimburse the cost of postage to their customers as well as offering a discount on their next orders.

Kraft paper, rice paper, and polylactic acid (PLA) are also popular materials used in coffee packaging. Not only are they recyclable and environmentally friendly, if they are left untreated, they are 100% biodegradable.

Kraft paper is made from wood chip pulp, while rice paper comes from renewable resources such as quintan tree bark and bamboo. PLA is a bioplastic that has similar characteristics to traditional plastics, but rather than petroleum it is made from carbohydrates such as maize and cornstarch. 

However, concerns over the ability of these materials to protect the freshness of coffee by themselves means that most roasters choose to add extra layers of protection for their packaging, such as aluminium foil lining. This affects the biodegradability of the materials, and requires each layer to be separated before it is recycled. 

Roasters must also consider the inks, labels, and degassing valves they use as this can cause further problems when it comes to recycling. Choosing biodegradable or compostable components can help support the process considerably.

At MTPak Coffee, we use water-based printing inks and coatings, with low volatile organic compounds, which are compostable and easily removed during the recycling process. Our non-toxic degassing valves are BPA-free and 100% compostable, allowing roasters to create an environmentally friendly product for consumers.

Coffee packaging recycling

Recycling Packaging Materials Around The World

The ease with which packaging materials are recycled is determined not only by the materials themselves, but also by their end-of-life management. However, the way in which waste is managed varies from country to country, and consumers still do not recycle as much as they could.

One of the problems is the variance between recycling cultures from one country to the next. While Germany, Austria, and South Korea recycle more than 50% of the waste they produce, Serbia, Botswana, and Samoa all have rates below 5%. This comes down to a number of factors, from education and facilities to government initiatives and local regulations.

Dulce Barrera is in charge of quality control at Bella Vista Coffee in Guatemala. She tells me that her country’s attitude towards recycling makes it difficult to provide eco-friendly coffee products to consumers. 

“Because we don’t have much of a recycling culture in Guatemala, it’s difficult to find environmentally friendly distributors or partners to supply us with products such as recyclable coffee packaging,” she says. 

“However, like the US and Europe, we are slowly becoming more conscious of the impact waste can have on the environment, and this culture is beginning to change.”

For example, in Guatemala, one of the most commonly used materials for coffee packaging is kraft paper, yet availability of compostable degassing valves remains limited. As availability is short and suitable waste facilities are rare, it can be difficult for consumers to recycle their coffee packaging, even if it is made from recyclable materials. 

The absence of collection schemes, drop-off points, and roadside facilities, as well as a lack of education on the importance of recycling, means that the empty coffee bags that could have been recycled instead end up in landfill.

In countries where recycling is already well established, specialty coffee roasters often face considerable pressure to become more eco-friendly, not just from the government, but from consumers too. 

According to a report by UK waste company Viridor, over 60% of consumers say they are more likely to buy products with recyclable packaging, while 49% say that they would pay more for these products. There is far more of an incentive, then, for roasters in countries with a strong recycling culture to adopt recyclable packaging than for those where recycling is not a priority.

Yet how easily coffee packaging is recycled also relies on government regulations that protect and support initiatives.

Dulce explains that in Guatemala, the government has started to introduce regulations on the type of packaging materials that can be sold with certain products.

“We now have regulations that encourage the use of kraft paper in packaging, rather than plastic,” she says.

Similarly, laws introduced in 2018 mean that EU countries will be required to recycle at least 55% of their municipal waste by 2025, 60% by 2030 and 65% by 2035. As part of this, local authorities will be given greater funds to pour into recycling facilities, making it easier for consumers to recycle their coffee packaging.

Producers will also be encouraged to include information on their packaging instructing consumers on the correct disposal of their empty products. 

Specialty coffee roasters can include this information on labels or on the sides of coffee bags to make it as easy as possible for their customers. If they have any sustainability certifications, these can be included too.

mtpak coffee

Using recyclable or environmentally responsible coffee packaging is more important than ever for roasters. It helps to limit the impact their sales have on the environment, as well as demonstrate a commitment to sustainability. In some countries, it may even be essential to adhere to government regulations. 

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of recyclable coffee packaging options, from LDPE to kraft and rice paper. No matter where you are, we can help you design and manufacture sustainable packaging that will appeal to your customers and follow government rules. 

You can choose from a selection of compostable components and inks to ensure a fully recyclable packaging solution, while including all the relevant information you need to keep your customers informed on how to correctly dispose of their empty coffee bags.

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

MTPak Coffee

Photo credits: Perfect Daily Grind, Angie Molina, Gisselle Guerra

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