Understanding the Mobius loop on recyclable coffee bags and cups

Jane Merchant
January 10, 2022
mobius loop recyclable coffee cup

For coffee roasters, choosing recyclable packaging materials to reduce waste is only half the battle.

If consumers don’t understand what they’re meant to do with their coffee bags once empty, the investment in eco-friendly packaging could be in vain.

Recycling symbols have existed for decades as an aid to help both consumers and businesses correctly dispose of packaging.

However, they are not always effective and even the most common recycling symbol, the Mobius loop, can be a source of confusion. In a recent survey, only 37% of participants could correctly identify what the Mobius loop meant, despite having been in use for more than 50 years.

As a result, recyclable packaging often ends up going to landfill sites, where it breaks down and emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

To ensure that customers dispose of your coffee packaging as intended, here is everything you need to know about the ubiquitous Mobius loop, and how to use it on coffee bags and cups.

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mobius loop

What is the Mobius loop?

Most people recall learning about the Möbius strip in school: a three dimensional, single sided looped strip with no beginning or end.

Discovered in 1858 by mathematician August Ferdinand Möbius, the Mobius strip changed the field of topography forever. Over the years, it has helped create everything from computer print cartridges to conveyor belts.

Today, it is widely recognised as a recycling symbol thanks to the work of US designer Gary Anderson.

In 1970, organisers of the inaugural “Earth Day” asked the public to send in their ideas for the world’s first commercial recycling symbol.

Anderson, then a 23-year-old student at the University of Southern California, submitted the winning design. It was a Mobius loop, which symbolised “continuity within a finite entity” and “suggest both the dynamic (things are changing) and the static (an equilibrium, a permanent state)”.

Since then, the symbol has become public property, meaning anyone can use it and no official body regulates its use.

The original loop consisted of a triangle with three green looping arrows making up each side of the shape. In the 1980s, the Society of Plastics Institute expanded on the Mobius loop, adding codes and symbols to account for the range of plastics and materials used as packaging.

For example, if an item is made from a certain amount of recycled materials, a number and percentage appear inside the three arrows.

recyclable coffee bag

The Mobius loop & product packaging

Visit your nearest supermarket and you’ll find hundreds, if not thousands, of products that feature the Mobius loop on their packaging.

While it may encourage the purchasing of certain products, it has also led to several problems.

One of the most significant is a phenomenon known as “wishcycling”, a situation in which consumers dispose of supposedly recyclable packaging and “hope for the best”. In other words, they assume that because it carries the Mobius loop, then it will end up being recycled so long as it is goes in a designated recycling bin.

The Plastics Industry is aware of this problem and state that the symbol “was not intended to be – nor was it ever promoted as – a guarantee to consumers that a given item bearing the symbol will be accepted for recycling in their community.”

Countries handle the misuse of the Mobius loop in different ways. The Federal Trade Commission states that when North American businesses use the Mobius loop on their packaging with no accompanying text or numbers, it can be reasonably interpreted as a claim that the packaging consists of 100% recycled materials and is widely recyclable.

They also mention that while anyone can use the symbol, using it deceptively “may subject your company to legal action or consumer backlash”.

One American senator is attempting to tackle the problem by penning a bill to prohibit businesses from using the Mobius loop unless their product or packaging meets certain criteria.

Specifically, it aims to reduce the volume of plastics that go to landfill sites, incinerators, or overseas. But until this bill comes into effect (and other countries pass similar bills), it’s up to businesses to take responsibility for their use of the Mobius loop.

recyclable coffee bag

Using the Mobius loop on coffee packaging

As a roaster, you have a wide range of coffee packaging materials available to you. No matter which option you choose, taking the following steps can make a big difference to where it ends up.

If you’re choosing coffee packaging for the first time or want to switch to an eco-friendly alternative, it’s worth finding out which recycling facilities are available in your area. For example, not all facilities have the equipment to deal with multilayer bags where each layer needs separating before it can be properly recycled.

If none exist, you could partner with a recycling collection scheme, such as TerraCycle. These organisations help roasters set up their own collection boxes and return them once for proper disposal.

To incentivise customers to send back their empty pouches, some roasters offer money off future orders or charge a small deposit that’s returned once the pouch is sent back to the roastery.

Once you’ve selected a recyclable coffee packaging material, it’s important to include useful information – alongside a Mobius loop – to guide consumers. Information could include:

– The nature of the material

– Special instructions (if any elements such as a zip or degassing value they should remove and what they should do with these elements)

– How to dispose of the material

– Where to dispose of the material

– What will happen to the material after disposal

Your packaging can mention what condition the packaging should be in (clean and dry to prevent contamination) and what happens to it afterwards. For example, you could mention that 100% of recycled bags go on to form new coffee bags or are repurposed to make other LDPE items.

sustainable coffee packaging

Despite its ubiquity, the Mobius loop can be confusing for even the most savvy of consumers. As such, it’s important for businesses to do all they can to demystify its meaning and ensure their customers understand what to do with the packaging once it’s served its purpose.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of recyclable coffee packaging options, from kraft paper to LDPE. With the help of our expert design team, you can customise your bag with as much information as you like about what to do once it’s empty.

Not only will this ensure your packaging retains its sustainable credentials, it will also help reduce the environmental impact of purchasing coffee.

For information on our recyclable coffee bags, contact our team.

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