As sustainable coffee packaging becomes increasingly ubiquitous, there has been a notable surge in terms such as “plant-based”, “eco-friendly”, and “biodegradable”. However, despite the obvious benefits of sustainable packaging, some of these terms can cause confusion among consumers.
“Compostable packaging” is a term that tends to be a continual source of bewilderment for many. Defined as packaging made from materials certified to break down completely into non-toxic components, the confusion usually stems from the difference between home composting and commercial composting.
While both methods are designed for the same purpose, some packaging with the “compostable” label will only break down in a commercial facility with a special environment. However, the differences between packaging that’s compostable at home and compostable at a facility are not immediately obvious.
Therefore, it’s important for specialty roasters to make it clear to consumers so they can make the right decision when disposing of their empty pouches. Read on to find out more about compostable coffee packaging.
See also: What Is Compostable Coffee Packaging?
What Does “Compostable Packaging” Mean?
Put simply, composting is the non-toxic breakdown of materials into organic compounds that benefit the soil.
It’s a process that’s been used for millennia to create nutrient-rich waste for agricultural purposes, with evidence of its use stretching as far back as the Roman era. Today, it’s estimated that around 40% of UK households either compost at home or have access to shared composting facilities.
“Compostable materials are those which are able to break down into a natural or organic state when placed in a ‘composting environment’,” writes Bethany Parker in an article for Eco & Beyond. “This means a home compost heap or an industrial composting facility. The process can take weeks, months or years, depending on the conditions. Optimal heat, moisture, and oxygen levels are all regulated.”
For packaging to display a “compostable” label it must meet a specific quality criteria, including ecotoxicity and the timeframe for decomposition. Unlike biodegradable materials, compostable materials are those which can be used as fertiliser or soil, which means they mustn’t leave behind any residue. In an industrial facility this usually takes place between three and six months.
Certifications for compostable packaging vary from country to country. However, the standard across the EU is the “seedling compostable logo”, a registered trademark of European Bioplastics. Products certified to be industrially compostable according to the European standard EN 13432/1495 may display the logo.
OK compost is another widely recognised certification for compostable products. Issued by TÜV Austria, there are two different versions: OK compost HOME and OK compost INDUSTRIAL.
The Australian AS 5810 was established in 2010, ensuring plastics are certified suitable for home composting. According to Australian standards, no plastic pieces larger than 12 mm can remain after 12 weeks of decomposition.
Home vs. Industrial Composting: What Are The Key Differences?
One of the main sources of confusion around compostable products is whether they can be composted at home or if they need to go to an industrial facility.
While the main difference between the two is scale, there are a number of factors that set the industrial and home composting apart.
In an industrial composting facility, the conditions are specifically designed to maximise the process of decomposition. Temperatures are high (between 55°C and 60°C) as this increases the number of microorganisms, while material structure (size of particles), moisture content, aeration (availability of oxygen), pH, and carbon/nitrogen ratio are also controlled. The final compost is then subject to quality control analysis to verify it meets compost specifications.
Industrial composting facilities assure optimal process conditions, fast degradation, good emission control, and high compost quality. Under these conditions composting is a controlled biotechnological process and as a consequence the term “industrial” (or municipal) composting is used to distinguish it from “home composting”.
Home composting, on the other hand, is a broad term used to describe a simple and inexpensive process by which organic waste breaks down, usually in a designated “compost bin”.
The most popular type of compost bin is an open-topped container that allows oxygen to flow. According to UK charity WRAP, home compost bins can deal with softer garden waste, some (uncoated) paper and cardboard and some food waste e.g. fruit and vegetable peelings.
Temperatures in a home composting environment, range from 13°C to 25°C (55°F to 77°F). However, regardless of temperature, compostable products should break down at roughly the same speed as vegetable waste, even in a “cool” compost bin.
“Home composting is usually a lot slower than industrial composting facilities,” writes Parker. “At home, it can take anywhere from a few months to two years depending on the contents of the pile and the composting conditions.”
How Can Home Composting Be Encouraged?
Roasters can go to great lengths to ensure their coffee packaging is compostable, but once it’s been bought it’s the responsibility of the consumer to make sure it goes to the right place.
Home composting is not only one of the most environmentally friendly ways of disposing of waste, it’s also one of the most simple. Compost bins are cheap, low maintenance, and take up little room. They can be used for the disposal of a range of items, including food scraps, old newspapers, wood shavings, and grass clippings.
According to Planet Natural, the optimal home composting conditions for quick decomposition will have a ratio of 30 parts nitrogen to one part carbon. This is achieved by adding nitrogen-producing green matter (e.g. grass cuttings) to carbon-producing brown matter (e.g. dead leaves and wood shavings).
Meanwhile, adding structure to a compost pile by shredding materials, like newspaper or plain white paper, allows for increased aeration – the more materials added to the compost pile, the larger the increase in temperature.
Despite the obvious benefits of home composting, consumers can sometimes forget to dispose of their home compostable coffee packaging in their compost bin. This can lead to it being thrown away along with the regular household waste, which means it will end up going to landfill instead.
To encourage home composting, certifications such as OK compost HOME should be clearly displayed on all coffee packaging for which it applies. Brief instructions could also be included underneath to make it as easy as possible to determine whether it can be composted at home or not.
For roasters offering home deliveries, a small card or leaflet with information on how to properly dispose of the coffee bag once it’s empty could be included. While this might increase costs slightly, it will improve the likelihood of the packaging being composted rather than going to landfill.
Compostable coffee packaging is becoming increasingly popular among specialty roasters. Affordable, sturdy, and easy to produce, it can also effectively preserve the freshness of coffee while showcasing a commitment to sustainability.
At MTPak Coffee, our PLA and kraft paper packaging breaks down into water, carbon dioxide, and organic matter, conforming to European EN 13432. The compostable seedling logo is visible on all of our packaging containing bio-based materials.
For more information on our compostable coffee packaging, contact our team here.
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