As concerns about the environmental impact of single-use plastics grow, eco-friendly alternatives have become increasingly popular.
Among the most commonly found alternatives for packaging is polylactic acid (PLA). PLA is a bioplastic made from renewable resources such as maize and cornstarch.
Not only does it require significantly less energy to produce than petroleum-based plastics, it will also break down completely in as little as 90 days.
Naturally, this makes it an attractive option for coffee bags, offering roasters the opportunity to showcase their commitment to the environment and reduce their carbon footprint in the process.
However, if PLA coffee bags are not disposed of correctly, their eco-friendly benefits will become all but negligible. As such, it’s important that both consumers and roasters understand how to properly dispose of PLA packaging once empty.
What is PLA and why is it popular?
PLA is a thermoplastic polyester made from fermenting carbohydrates from renewable resources such as corn or cassava.
The material is then processed into films or sheets and made into single use primary food packaging that isn’t meant to last a long time or be reused.
Not only does PLA have good barrier properties against heat, light, and oxygen, it is also fat and oil resistant. These qualities make it well suited to coffee packaging, which ages or degrades when exposed to these external factors.
However, PLA’s popularity in the coffee sector is largely thanks to its eco-friendly credentials. Because it consists of renewable raw materials, it breaks down within 90 days in a commercial facility in the form of carbon dioxide and water.
Furthermore, compared to traditional, petroleum-based plastic, PLA requires significantly less energy to manufacture. One study suggests that switching from petroleum-based to bioplastics such as PLA could cut US greenhouse gas emissions by as much as a quarter.
This is crucial in an age in which consumers are looking at businesses to become more sustainable. According to research by Sendle, a courier company, 56% of respondents have recently reassessed their buying habits due to climate change. Almost 70% also want to buy more sustainable products.
Over half of respondents said they are more likely to use a retailer that offers compostable packaging. They’re also more likely to make repeat purchases or subscribe to a service that uses sustainable packaging, such as PLA.
Why does PLA need to be disposed of correctly?
Research shows that if PLA ends up in the sea (or other aquatic environments), it can a similar impact to petroleum-based plastic packaging.
Furthermore, if it goes to landfills rather than commercial composting facilities, it can take upwards of 100 years to break down – rather than 90 days.
This means that if disposed of incorrectly, PLA ceases to be an environmentally friendly option altogether.
Using PLA incorrectly could also lead to fines or penalties for your business. According to the EU Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan, businesses should avoid greenwashing, which is, essentially, pretending to be environmentally friendly. Using bioplastics that don’t offer real ecological advantages certainly falls into this category.
Furthermore, while PLA can be recycled, it isn’t always financially or practically feasible to do so. Mechanically recycling is usually cheaper, but it deteriorates PLA’s molecular weight and quality, preventing reuse.
Chemical recycling, however, recovers valuable chemicals that are infinitely reusable and contamination free. The processes involved are complex, energy intensive, challenging to scale up, or bad for the environment, so correct protocol must be followed.
Important factors to consider
While all compostable products are biodegradable, the reverse doesn’t apply. It’s important to know the difference as it impacts how PLA disposed of and processed.
Compostable materials break down biologically under specific temperature, moisture, nutrient, and oxygen conditions. Instead of leaving toxic residue behind, they leave only carbon dioxide and water. Some of these materials degrade independently, but most benefit from the carefully controlled conditions of an industrial facility.
Something that’s biodegradable – but not compostable – is usually inorganic and will break down into microplastics. These materials can break down under any conditions, but this can take months.
In the case of PLA, treating it the wrong way can render it just as harmful as a traditional plastic. It’s rarely segregated from or differentiated from other materials, and when recycled together, quality suffers.
Many countries lack dedicated PLA collection and processing infrastructure. In these cases it’s easier to incinerate PLA, as it does not contain harmful elements like chlorine or heavy metals.
There are a few other practicalities to keep in mind. While PLA requires special circumstances to completely degrade, it might lose its structural integrity much sooner. Redbank Coffee Roasters in the UK uses compostable packaging for its 250g bags rather than biodegradable packaging.
“The danger with any biodegradable material is that it starts to break down whilst it’s still in storage at the roastery prior to its intended usage,” the company explains in a blog post on their website.
Tips for correctly disposing of PLA coffee packaging
Before you package your coffee using PLA, assess your options. Find out if there are PLA processing or collection facilities near you.
If not, locate any dedicated PLA recycling bins (recycling symbol #7) in your area. If that doesn’t work out either, commit to collecting the used packaging yourself and arrange for its transport to a suitable facility.
To know if your PLA packaging is recyclable, home compostable, or industrially compostable, it’s worth taking the time to find a trustworthy supplier.
You’ll also need to account for how a bag’s labels, zippers, and degassing valves must be treated. For example, the Coffee Factory in the UK tells customers to remove their bag labels before disposal.
They’ve removed their bag seals and valves entirely to ensure their packaging is 100% compostable. Like other roasters, they reserve their compostable packaging for small or sample sized bags.
No matter what decision you make, explaining why you’ve done what you’ve done — and what consumers can do from their side — is critical. Most consumers will look for recycling instructions on the coffee bag itself. Make use of this space to include these details, along with information on your coffee’s origins and tasting notes.
PLA coffee packaging can work for your business, customers, and the environment.
The trick to making sure it’s responsibly disposed of after use is to partner with a coffee packaging expert who can guide you through the process and answer any questions you might have.
MTPak Coffee can help you design PLA coffee packaging, ensuring it clearly communicates disposal information to your customers.