What Does “Sustainable Coffee Packaging” Really Mean?

TJ Grant
April 20, 2021
sustainable coffee packaging

In recent years, the word “sustainable” has become ubiquitous. It’s included in companies’ mission statements, plastered across the side of buses, and printed on the labels of soft drinks. It’s found on the lids of takeaway cups, on banners in store window displays, and even on government websites.

However, despite its widespread use, very few are able to define exactly what the word sustainable means. According to a recent survey of US consumers, some understood it to mean “environmentally friendly”, while others suggested it was more to do with “health” and “life”.

In the coffee industry, plastic packaging has fallen out of favour and gradually been replaced by “sustainable” alternatives. But what do these alternatives look like? How are they different from conventional packaging? And what do they have to offer specialty coffee roasters?

See also: Why Should Coffee Roasters Use Sustainable Inks On Packaging?

sustainable takeaway cups

How Do We Define “Sustainable”?

The first recorded use of the word “sustainable” appeared more than 300 years ago in a German forestry book. Originally used to mean “never harvesting more than the forest can regenerate”, over time the term has largely retained its meaning.

Today, the most accurate definition of sustainable can be found in the UN’s Brundtland Report, published in 1987. It describes sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

However, while this could be interpreted as environmentalism, most agree that it encompasses social and economic development, too. 

As McGill University states in its sustainability report: “Sustainability as a whole has its roots in social justice, conservationism, internationalism, and other past movements. Embedded in most definitions of sustainability, we find concerns for social equity and economic development, alongside environmental concerns.”

In a 2010 blog post, Zero Waste Scotland describes sustainability simply as “considering the long term impact of our actions”. They write that a failure to do so will mean “marginal areas of the world will become inhabitable; oil will no longer be available; alternative forms of energy may not provide the amount required to sustain such a large number of people on the planet.

“To be sustainable, all you can do is manage your own household and business waste sustainably, and trust that others are doing the same”.

Therefore, based on all these summaries, sustainable can be broadly defined as anything that doesn’t deplete the availability of resources for future generations.

recyclable coffee bags

What Is Sustainable Packaging?

Not long ago, plastic was the material of choice for most coffee roasters. Hygienic, low-cost, and offering good protection against external factors, it was virtually unrivalled.

However, in recent years, concerns over the amount of plastic production have grown considerably. Knowledge of how much plastic goes to landfill, the amount of time it takes to break down, and the prevalence of microplastics in the oceans has put pressure on businesses to look for plastic-free alternatives.

This has led to the widespread emergence of sustainable coffee packaging. Put simply, sustainable coffee packaging is any type of packaging, whether a flat bottom pouch or a drip coffee bag, that reduces the carbon footprint and environmental impact of a business.

According to the World Packaging Organization (WPO), sustainable packaging must meet the functional and economic needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This includes the whole supply chain, from basic function and marketing, to end of life and reuse.

In 2006, US supermarket giant Wal-mart introduced a scorecard for sustainable packaging based on the “seven R’s” to help suppliers improve the sustainability of their products: remove, reduce, reuse, renew, recycle, revenue, and read.

For specialty coffee roasters, this means adopting coffee packaging made from renewable resources (such as kraft paper) and/or using recyclable or compostable materials (such as LDPE and PLA). Not only do these materials require considerably less carbon emissions to produce, they contribute to a circular economy in which resources are in continual use and waste is eliminated.

For consumers, it can be difficult to determine whether their coffee packaging is sustainable beyond the claims of the roastery or café. However, one thing to look out for is sustainability certifications.

For example, compostable packaging can be recognised by the distinctive OK compost certification, while recyclable packaging is typically denoted by a triangle made up of arrows with a number in the middle.

To find out more about certifications, head to our sustainability certifications page. 

kraft paper coffee bags

Why Is Sustainable Packaging Important? 

It’s estimated that by 2050 plastic production will reach 1,600 million tonnes per year. However, since the 1950s, less than 10% of global plastic has been recycled

The implications this could have for the environment, not to mention the effect of microplastics on marine life, could be devastating. As a result, more and more businesses have started to heed calls to limit their plastic use.

Nowhere have calls for change come more fervently than from millennials. Defined as anyone aged between 25 and 40 years, millennials have consistently made their demands for environmentally friendly practices clear. According to a 2020 report by Capgemini, over half of millennials are more likely to buy products from environmentally friendly brands than they are from well-established brands.

What’s more, recent studies have found that millennials would be willing to spend more on products from environmentally conscious brands. This means that specialty roasters could lose out on customers and higher profits if they don’t switch to more sustainable packaging.

That being said, if compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable packaging goes to landfill, it can still cause problems to the environment. To ensure sustainable packaging is fully sustainable, more needs to be done to ensure it’s disposed of correctly.

In the coffee industry, there needs to be a three-pronged effort: roasters need to inform customers on how to dispose of their used packaging; consumers need to ensure they follow the instructions on how to dispose of their packaging; and governments need to increase the availability of recycling plants and composting facilities.

sustainable coffee packaging

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of certified-sustainable coffee packaging options for specialty roasters. Most of our biodegradable and compostable pouches meet European certification standard (EN 13432) issued by Din Certco, while our LDPE packaging is 100% recyclable. Our paper-based packaging carries the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo.

With fully sustainable coffee packaging, specialty roasters can showcase their commitment to the environment as well as reducing their carbon footprint. We can help you with everything from the packaging materials to the additional components and low-VOC water-based inks.

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

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