Reducing Single-Use Plastics In The Coffee Industry

TJ Grant
January 11, 2021
single use plastic

Despite their extensive range of purposes, single-use plastics have fallen out of favour in the past few years, as consumers grow increasingly aware of their negative impact on the environment.

In the coffee sector, a historic reliance on single-use plastic items such as straws, stirrers, and disposable cups has made it difficult to move away from them.

However, as an ever-greater number of sustainable alternatives become available, specialty coffee roasters have started to phase out their use of single-use plastics and become more eco-friendly.

Read on to learn about the problems associated with single-use plastics, and what specialty coffee roasters can do to reduce their impact on the environment.

See Also: Why Should Roasters Create Coffee Blends?

takeaway coffee cups

What Are Single-Use Plastics?

Single-use plastics are goods made primarily from petrochemicals that are disposed of immediately after use.  

In the United States, single-use plastics became popular during the 1960s as an alternative to traditional silverware that would naturally have to be washed. Their popularity further increased in the 1970s and 80s amid concerns over the number of trees being cut down and used for paper bags. 

This triggered a wave which saw manufacturers replace all kinds of traditional paper and glass staples with lighter and more affordable single-use plastic alternatives.

In the coffee sector, single-use plastics have been used in a number of forms, from stirrers and straws to lids and capsules. In the UK alone, almost half of all coffees and hot drinks are sold in disposable cups, with an estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups thrown away per year. Until the introduction of a ban in October 2020, the number of single-use plastic stirrers used was more than 310 million per year

However, not all single-use plastics are avoidable. Those used in the medical industry, such as syringes, bandages, drugs tests, and surgical gloves, play an essential role in preventing the spread of viruses and diseases. According to a fact sheet published by the American Chemistry Council, single-use plastics are the cleanest, most efficient way to facilitate health and hygiene in hospitals.

single-use plastic straws

Why Are Single-Use Plastics Used In Coffee Problematic?

Single-use plastics are specifically designed to be used for a short period of time before being thrown away. Their convenience, affordability, and ease of use are the main reasons they have become so popular among manufacturers. 

However, the short-term nature of their use has also inadvertently contributed to a dramatic rise in the accumulation of non-recyclable plastic waste, the majority of which ends up going to landfill or polluting our oceans.

An article by the Natural Resources Defence Council states: “We produce 300 million tons of plastic worldwide each year, half of which comprises single-use items. That’s nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population… it is predicted that between 4.8 million and 13 million tons [of this plastic] ends up in oceans around the globe.”

Some experts estimate that if plastic production and usage continue at current rates, there will be three times more plastic waste entering the oceans in 2040 than there was in 2016.

Disposable coffee cups make up a large percentage of all single-use plastic waste. This is because many are made from paper lined with plastic to make them waterproof. This plastic lining cannot be removed by most recycling facilities, and, once used, the paper part of the cup is usually contaminated by the cup’s contents. 

The plastic cups used for cold brew coffees and other iced drinks are also problematic. Most are made from polypropylene, a plastic which is accepted by very few curbside recycling programmes, meaning the majority ends up going to landfill. 

Similarly, plastic coffee lids used on disposable cups are typically made from petroleum-based plastics such as polypropylene or polystyrene, and are very difficult to recycle. 

According to Rachel Meidl, a fellow in Energy and Environment at Rice University, recycling and converting used polypropylene into reusable plastic is often too costly to be profitable. She says that the sorting, cleaning, and melting of polypropylene is “more expensive than creating virgin or new polypropylene lids”.

sustainable coffee packaging

Reducing Single-Use Plastic Waste In The Coffee Industry

While single-use plastics are an attractive option for specialty coffee roasters thanks to their convenience and affordability, it has become more important than ever for coffee businesses to show a tangible commitment to sustainability. 

Environmental sustainability is a primary focus for consumers, with research by Trade Fair, Live Fair finding that 88% of people believe brands should take action to protect the environment.

A failure to move away from single-use plastics could prompt customers to look elsewhere for their coffee, placing more sustainable brands at a significant advantage. 

As a result, ever-greater numbers of specialty coffee roasters are looking at sustainable alternatives to package their beans using materials such as low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and polylactic acid (PLA)

LDPE is a thermoplastic characterised by its properties as a thin, lightweight, and flexible material that can withstand temperatures of up to 80°C. On packaging, it is denoted by a number “4” inside a triangle of clockwise arrows, which means it is fully recyclable in most local authorities.

Similarly, PLA offers the same qualities as traditional plastics with the advantage of being made from renewable and compostable resources. For coffee packaging it offers excellent stability and protection, providing an effective barrier against moisture, light, and oxygen.

mtpak sustainable coffee packaging

While single-use plastics may be essential in some industries, the coffee sector has already started a wide-scale switch to more sustainable alternatives wherever possible. With the introduction of country and statewide bans on various types of single-use plastics and growing consumer demands for sustainability, taking action is more crucial than ever.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable packaging solutions that help specialty coffee roasters move away from non-recyclable single-use plastics. Our LDPE and PLA coffee bags are recyclable and sustainable, while ensuring the freshness of your coffee is preserved when it arrives at the consumer.

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

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