How Can Coffee Packaging Balance Sustainability & Quality?

Janice Kanniah
April 5, 2021
recyclable packaging

As consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental impact of their purchasing habits, more and more are turning to brands that showcase a commitment to sustainability. According to a recent survey by Deloitte, 43% of consumers actively choose brands based on their environmental values, while two-thirds have reduced their purchase of single-use plastics.

As a result, many specialty roasters have changed the way they package their coffee, from using recyclable materials to water-based inks. Not only has it been important for maintaining a loyal customer base, it’s also essential to creating a more sustainable supply chain.

However, others have been slightly more reluctant to move on from their traditional packaging. Fears over the effectiveness of recyclable and compostable materials at preserving freshness and prolonging shelf life have

To find out about how to balance sustainability and quality, I spoke with Head of Communications at Producer & Roaster Forum, Jordan Montgomery.

See also: What Should Roasters Prioritise When Choosing Coffee Packaging?

plastic packaging

The Decline Of Plastic Packaging

For nearly 100 years, plastic has played a crucial role in packaging products. Cheap, versatile, and hygienic, it’s used for everything from ready-meals to medical supplies. Plastic coffee packaging has long-been favoured by roasters thanks to its strength, durability, and effectiveness at preserving freshness.

However, in recent years, businesses have come under increasing pressure to abandon plastic in favour of more sustainable alternatives. 

Popular TV series lamenting the amount of plastic use, such as War On Plastic and Planet Earth, have been particularly powerful in shifting public opinion. Meanwhile, many politicians, campaigners, and environmental groups have stepped up their calls to switch to more eco-friendly options as the impact of plastic on the environment becomes abundantly clear.

Consequently, more and more specialty roasters have started looking for sustainable materials and components to package their coffee. Recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable materials such as kraft paper and polylactic acid (PLA) have risen in popularity, while compostable single-use coffee pods have recently entered the market.

But not everyone has been quick to adopt sustainable packaging for their coffee. Concerns over the ability of materials such as rice paper to protect against external factors have encouraged some roasters to stick with plastic or aluminium foil lined pouches. 

They worry that quality will be negatively affected if externalities such as light or moisture are allowed to enter and cause the coffee to become stale. If customers buy their coffee and take it home only to realise once they brew it that it’s not fresh, it could damage their reputation and hit profits.

sustainable coffee packaging

Are Consumers More Concerned About Quality Or Sustainability?

Although sustainability has become a priority for consumers over the last few years, some studies suggest that factors like quality and convenience are higher up the agenda. In a study by McKinsey & Company, 43% of surveyed US consumers cited environmental impact as extremely or very important for packaging, compared with 67% for shelf life.

Jordan Montgomery has worked in the specialty coffee industry for more than a decade. Currently Head of Communications for Producer & Roaster Forum, he’s also worked with green bean companies, wholesale roasters, and World Barista Champion Saša Šestić. He tells me that although sustainable packaging is important, it needs to work for the consumer as well as the roaster.

“To me, sustainable packaging is not only environmentally friendly but also financially and socially sustainable,” he says. “It’s no use creating eco-friendly coffee packaging that’s too expensive to produce or isn’t consumer-friendly.”

Indeed, a University of Florida report found that when a sustainably packaged product requires consumers to compromise on quality, performance, or price, they’re less willing to buy it. However, if these trade-offs are removed, they’re more likely to choose sustainably packaged products when given the choice.

“I wouldn’t say that customers prefer sustainability over quality,” Jordan says. “They prioritise both but have a different idea of what quality entails. What we consider high-quality as roasters (durable materials and functional valves) may not be a priority to customers. Quality is translated to consumers in appearances and messaging, such as how it looks and what they can learn from it.”

The report goes on to suggest that while taste and price are important, consumers will often overlook a product’s brand, healthiness, availability, ease of carrying, and design for a sustainably packaged alternative.

Jordan tells me that while many roasters have switched to recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable packaging in the last few years, many tend to neglect certain elements that will impact their coffee packaging’s functionality.

“For example, the functionality of metal tins for transport, design, and their ability to be recycled or repurposed makes them ideal for coffee packaging,” he explains. “However, it’s difficult to use one-way valves on these products, meaning that their coffee quality may be compromised.”

sustainable coffee packaging

Striking A Balance Between The Two

For most, the ultimate coffee packaging is a combination of the two: sustainable materials that effectively protect the quality of the coffee inside.

While this used to be difficult to achieve, in part, due to the difficulty of separating recyclable materials, the landscape has changed in recent years. Compostable plant-based bioplastics such as PLA have made it easier than ever to reinforce sustainable materials like kraft and rice paper. These high-barrier laminates provide extra protection for the coffee yet can be composted in a commercial facility in as little as 90 days.

According to independent analysis commissioned by NatureWorks, producing PLA uses 65% less energy than conventional plastics and generates 68% fewer greenhouse gases. It also releases no toxins when it breaks down.

However, Jordan notes that the difficulties he’s experienced during his time in the coffee industry have involved the components on coffee packaging, rather than the materials themselves.

Roasters often use degassing valves and resealable zippers that are vital for preserving freshness but need to be removed from compostable packaging before disposal. He says that it’s the responsibility of roasters to inform customers of this.

“If packaging requires the participation of consumers to be successfully recycled, then it’s up to the roaster to communicate this effectively with positive messaging,” he explains. “Otherwise the moment consumers discover the product is not 100% recyclable, they’ll lose faith in its quality and messaging.”

This is especially important as businesses that are seen as greenwashing their brand are often viewed negatively by customers. Greenwashing is when brands make false or misleading statements on their commitment to environmental sustainability.

“There’s a big difference between intention, i.e. we’re going to reduce our waste, and action i.e. we have reduced our waste. Not every single roaster has the ability to be completely carbon neutral or sustainable. However, there are steps each person can take to reduce their harm to the planet. Being transparent and honest to your customers about your ability to reduce these harms is the first step.”

An effective way of telling customers about the sustainability of your coffee packaging is through sustainability certifications. Third-party organisations such as the Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade, and OK compost will offer their sustainability certification on coffee packaging that fulfils a certain criteria. If your packaging can be composted at home, for example, it will be awarded an OK compost HOME certification to let customers know. 

These certifications help build consumer trust in your brand and ensure that other companies aren’t making empty statements about the sustainability of their packaging. They act as a nifty guide for customers, with the idea that they’ll be able to quickly identify the products that align with their values when shopping.

Jordan believes that while sustainability coffee packaging and its quality have vastly improved over the last few years, it’s set to become even more sustainable in the future. 

“I see coffee packaging embracing the repurposing of industry byproducts,” he says. “Imagine a coffee bag made from coffee plants, dried cherries, and used grounds. We’ve seen these byproducts used in reusable cups, cutlery, and crockery – why not for coffee packaging?”

compostable coffee bags

Balancing sustainability with quality doesn’t have to cost your roastery more than it can afford. It doesn’t have to take hours of research and development either. There are coffee packaging specialists that can guide you in creating completely recyclable or compostable coffee packaging – from the packaging material to its printed inks.

At MTPak Coffee, we’re experts at helping roasters transition from single-use plastic packaging to sustainable alternatives. We offer a range of high-quality recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable options that will preserve the freshness of your coffee and showcase your commitment to sustainability. You can also include additional recyclable components, including degassing valves and resealable zippers.

For more information on our sustainable packaging options contact our team here.

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