In recent years, the impact of plastic packaging on the environment has been made abundantly clear: it’s filling up landfill sites, polluting our oceans, and even entering the food chain. As a result, many specialty coffee roasters have started adopting recyclable alternatives, such as kraft paper and LDPE pouches.
However, as a relatively new concept, research into how recyclable materials affect the characteristics of coffee has been limited. While plastic packaging is highly effective at preserving the freshness of coffee without changing the flavour, less is known about the effects of more sustainable materials.
To find out how recyclable packaging affects coffee, I spoke with 2018 German Barista Champion and Female Barista Society founder, Nicole Battefeld.
See also: What Is Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)?
How Has The Role Of Coffee Packaging Developed Over Time?
Over the centuries, packaging has played an essential role in the global development of coffee. It’s enabled roasters to safely distribute their products far and wide, ensuring it arrives at consumers with all its original qualities intact.
When coffee packaging first emerged in the 18th century, its main purpose was to get coffee from A to B. But by the mid 1800s, its marketing potential had begun to be explored by the likes of James Arbuckle and Maxwell House.
Arbuckle’s one pound paper coffee packages carried distinctive yellow labels with large red lettering that became familiar to coffee drinkers up and down the United States. Maxwell, meanwhile, had started displaying the tagline, “Good to the last drop”, across all its tins of coffee.
The 20th century ushered in a new focus on the “freshness” of coffee and, with it, packaging that would effectively preserve it. Multilayer pouches lined with aluminium foil became increasingly widespread, while Italian company Goglio introduced the degassing valve, a revolutionary one-way vent for releasing CO2.
Today, coffee packaging serves a multitude of purposes: it’s a marketing tool, a means of storage, a vehicle for storytelling. It’s also a reflection of brand identity, with the choice of packaging indirectly telling consumers a lot about the company and its values.
Hence, the incorporation of packaging that shows a commitment to sustainability has become paramount in recent years. The issue, however, has been figuring out how to do this while preserving the quality of the coffee inside.
Recyclable materials like kraft paper are not particularly effective at protecting coffee without additional layers. As a result, they usually require some form of laminate or lining to improve their properties as a barrier against external factors such as oxygen and moisture.
Nicole Battefeld is Berlin-based roaster and barista champion. She tells me that it’s these additional, non-recyclable layers that cause problems to the sustainability of packaging.
“More often than not, two different materials are used for coffee pouches: one on the inside and one on the outside,” she says. “It becomes non-recyclable when a foil layer is used as these can’t be recycled or separated. So even if it’s a good way to protect coffee, it comes with a high environmental cost.”
How Does Recyclable Packaging Affect The Characteristics Of Coffee?
As the push for sustainable coffee packaging has grown in force, fully recyclable options have become more widely available.
Materials like kraft paper and rice paper can now be laminated with polylactic acid (PLA), a plant-based bioplastic, helping to do away with aluminium foil and PE plastic. Similarly, recyclable degassing valves and resealable zippers can be fitted to create a more convenient coffee bag for consumers.
On her blog, Nicole carried out an experiment on MTPak Coffee’s recyclable bags to test how they affected various characteristics of the coffee. She used the same El Zacatin Colombian filter coffee in three different bags, including a biodegradable bag, a recyclable bag, and a standard paper bag with aluminium foil lining.
On the eighteenth day after roasting, she cupped each one side-by-side, as she knew this to be the day on which that particular coffee reached its “peak”. She then recorded the results of each one across four measurements: aftertaste, acidity, body, and sweetness.
“Compared to the standard paper bag, the acidity was way more structured in the coffee from the recyclable bag,” she writes. “It was bright and not quite as heavy. I tasted all of the flavours of blood orange, red punch, cinnamon, red plum, and red apple. It was crisp, fresh and sweet – this coffee blew me away.”
Out of the three bags, Nicole rated the recyclable one as by far the best for preserving the coffee’s characteristics. However, she also notes that this is only true of that coffee, and that the biodegradable packaging may lend itself well to espresso roasts, which often needs a longer ageing period.
She admits that natural materials haven’t always performed as well as materials like plastic. However, as they become more popular, their efficacy at protecting coffee from external factors such as oxygen and light is improving.
“Now, many options on the market can protect beans from light and oxygen while being customisable and colourful,” she says. “Most come with a resealable zip lock, so customers can use the bag to store the coffee after it’s been opened.”
The Importance Of Educating Consumers
Specialty roasters can go to great lengths testing the quality of their recyclable coffee bags to ensure a more environmentally friendly product for consumers. However, if consumers don’t realise they can recycle their empty coffee packaging, then all this effort will go to waste.
Recent research shows that the most common barrier to recycling packaging remains uncertainty over what can and can’t be recycled, resulting in materials entering the wrong waste stream and being lost to the economy.
For example, just under a third of UK consumers say they understand what the Mobius Loop with PET (polyethylene terephthalate) actually meant, despite it being one of the most recyclable materials available.
Nicole tells me that it’s up to roasters to educate consumers on how the materials used for their coffee packaging can be recycled.
“Initially, I didn’t realise my coffee bags would end up in the general waste bin, which is sent to landfill and incinerated, causing air pollution,” she says. “To avoid this, roasters should include details of their packaging’s recyclability by either printing information or adding a QR code.”
However, she explains that the only way a roaster will truly know about the recyclability of their packaging is by doing their own research. In addition to the materials, this includes the inks and additional components, such as degassing valves and resealable zippers.
“As a roaster, it’s important to research these components and be able to say ‘I’m using these bags and have made a conscious decision towards quality, taste and environmental impact.’”
At MTPak Coffee, we offer fully recyclable coffee packaging made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE), kraft paper, rice paper, and PLA. Our low-VOC water-based inks and BPA-free degassing valves are also recyclable, helping to preserve the unique characteristics of each coffee.
LDPE packaging is denoted by three arrows that form a triangle with a “4” in the middle. However, our customisable options mean that specialty roasters can detail as much additional information as they want to help educate customers, as well as including scannable QR codes.
For more information on our recyclable coffee packaging, contact our team here.
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