How far are we from “infinitely recyclable” coffee packaging?

Jane Merchant
February 21, 2022
brown resealable coffee bag on table top surrounded by roasted coffee beans

The UN is considering enforcing the world’s first global, legally binding treaty in an effort to tackle the plastic waste crisis.

Part of this treaty could see businesses switch to sustainable “infinitely recyclable” packaging. These materials contain all the convenient properties of traditional plastics, but can be repeatedly recycled without losing quality or strength.

Admittedly, the development of infinitely recyclable plastics is still in its early stages. 

However, in the move towards more sustainable packaging options, it could be the solution many roasters and coffee shop owners are looking for. 

Read on to learn more about infinitely recyclable plastics and other sustainable options that are currently available. 

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hands holding open pouch of roasted coffee beans

Why are traditional plastics so hard to recycle?

Plastic is a popular choice for packaging materials as it is durable, accessible, and affordable. 

Unfortunately, not all plastics are recyclable. In truth, over 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced globally each year, while only 9% of all plastic waste ever made has been recycled.

Separating the layers of plastic-lined items is complex and costly. Also, plastics used for food items must be thoroughly cleaned before recycling or they risk ending up in a landfill.

While uncontaminated and unlayered plastic items are recyclable, the process fundamentally changes them. This is because plastic is made up of long polymer chains that make it strong, lightweight, and flexible. 

However, each time plastic is recycled or melted down, this polymer chain shortens. As a result, plastic can only be recycled a few times before becoming completely unusable.

Nevertheless, many manufacturers avoid this issue by adding unprocessed plastic, also known as virgin plastic, to recycled batches in order to improve its quality. 

Certainly, natural materials like wood, glass, and metal can be used for packaging. Unfortunately, they are highly impractical as products could be damaged during transport or shipping. 

As a result, infinitely recyclable plastics are naturally a more attractive option for many in the coffee sector.

caramel coloured resealable coffee pouch with degassing valve surrounded by roasted coffee beans and finely ground coffee on wooden background

What are infinitely recyclable plastics?

As traditional recycling degrades the quality of plastic, scientists have turned to polymer chemistry and chemical recycling as an alternative. 

Essentially, these methods turn plastics into a base oil or liquid that is then infinitely recyclable. 

A common chemical recycling process called “feedstock recycling” uses extreme heat to break polymers down into gas. This gas is then cooled and condensed into a distillable liquid. 

Typically, feedstock recycling has a high conversion rate, so it may work within a circular economy.

Interestingly, this process is being trialled by numerous companies around the world, and many are using their own patented recycling processes.

Additionally, other scientists have pioneered new forms of infinitely recyclable plastics that look and behave like traditional plastics, such as poly(diketoenamine), or PDK.

The polymers in PDK were engineered to be repeatedly recycled without losing quality or strength. 

While both PDK and feedstock recycling are likely to be successful sustainable options in the future, neither can currently beat plastic’s most important trait – convenience. 

The technology and manufacturing equipment for infinitely recycled plastics is in its early stages. Furthermore, scaling the option to suit smaller businesses will take time and significant resources.  

In the meantime, brands that want to use infinitely recycled plastics will have to find alternative solutions.

Gold and black Penny Farthing Coffee Roasters paper coffee pouch on white background

What packaging options are available to roasters?

Until infinitely recyclable plastics are widely available, coffee roasters and coffee shop owners may want to explore compostable or reusable packaging options. 

PLA & LDPE packaging options

Presently, packaging made from polylactic acid (PLA) ticks the boxes for sustainability and preserving a coffee’s quality. 

PLA is made by fermenting carbohydrates from corn or cassava – a starchy root vegetable native to South America. 

Not only does it have good barrier properties against heat, light, and oxygen, but its raw materials help it break down within 90 days in a commercial facility. 

Another option is one of the world’s most widely used packaging materials: low-density polyethylene (LDPE). This material has similar characteristics to plastic, and it is affordable, strong, and extremely versatile.

Interestingly, its high barrier properties have made LDPE a popular choice for coffee bags. However, as it has multiple layers, it is only sustainable when disposed of correctly

Kraft & rice paper options

On the other hand, roasters could choose to stick with 100% compostable or recyclable options such as kraft paper or rice paper. Both are completely natural, biodegradable and compostable. 

Commonly, these types of materials are reserved for samples or small packaging portions.

It’s important to note that printed or treated kraft and rice paper might be better suited to recycling. 

Regardless of which option you choose, ensuring your packaging is properly recycled is the key. Roasters and coffee shop owners can implement a packaging recycling scheme to help make sure your coffee packaging is processed and recycled as intended. 

For example, TerraCycle offers roasters Zero Waste Boxes to collect their used packaging. Once filled, these boxes can be returned to Terracycle for proper recycling. 

Furthermore, roasters and coffee shop owners can incentivise customers to dispose of their packaging in-store by offering them discounts or vouchers. 

Alternatively, if you use multilayer packaging, printing recycling instructions on your packaging can help remind customers of the correct process. 

This is also an opportunity to highlight your sustainability goals and get your customers excited to be involved in the process.

white resealable coffee pouch with degassing valve sitting on blue coffee machine, surrounded by black coffee mugs and white paper takeaway cups

The world of recycling is constantly evolving and, in the future, the world’s plastic packaging pollution problem may be eliminated entirely. 

Infinitely recyclable plastics may form part of that future. In the meantime, roasters and coffee shop owners looking for suitable packaging solutions might want to consider alternative options.

At MTPak Coffee, we have a wealth of information on our Education Centre that can help guide roasters and coffee shop owners towards more sustainable practices and ethical choices when it comes to packaging.

We also offer a choice of 100% compostable or recyclable packaging options such as kraft paper or rice paper. Both options are natural, biodegradable and compostable.

Additional choices include PLA and LDPE coffee bags. All of our packaging options are fully customised using sustainable materials. 

For more details on our sustainable packaging solutions, contact the team.

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