How much does packaging contribute to the carbon footprint of a bag of coffee?

Jane Merchant
May 2, 2022
How much does packaging contribute to the carbon footprint of a bag of coffee

An increasing number of businesses and customers are realising the impact carbon emissions have on climate change. 

As a result, more businesses are tracking their carbon footprint, in order to determine how their operations affect the planet. 

The term carbon footprint refers to the volume of CO2 released into the atmosphere as a result of the activities of a particular individual, organisation, or community.

Products such as coffee involve a complex supply chain. Green beans can pass through multiple processes that span several continents, which can make tracking and calculating its total carbon footprint challenging. 

Therefore, roasters have limited control over a coffee’s carbon footprint before it reaches them. However, they can control the coffee’s roast and packaging process, which can help reduce the carbon emissions of the roastery.

Find out how packaging contributes to a coffee’s carbon footprint, and how roasters can help reduce it.

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Sacks of roasted coffee beans from Ethiopia roasted for espresso, dark and medium roast

What is the coffee supply chain’s total carbon footprint?

Compared to other agricultural commodities, coffee has a relatively high carbon footprint – surpassed only by animal, and highly-processed food products. 

Its impact goes even deeper as massive quantities must be produced annually, despite the fact that coffee is not a necessity for human survival.

Important to realise is the carbon footprint of a specific coffee will depend on various factors, including its origin and how it is produced.

In an attempt to calculate the carbon footprint of coffee, researchers examined sustainably produced Brazilian and Vietnamese arabica coffee exported to the UK for roasting. 

They determined the average carbon footprint of this particular coffee was 3.51kg of CO2 per kilogram of green coffee produced. Additionally, they found the most significant contributor to emissions was the coffee’s production and packaging.

This is with the assumption the coffee is being packaged using primary materials such as plastic. It also takes into account the energy, water, and materials consumed, as well as the waste eliminated during its packaging production.

Black and pink coffee pouch on black counter with green monstera plant in background

How does packaging contribute to coffee’s carbon footprint?

Product packaging has been a major contributor to pollution and global warming for many years. By extension, a company’s packaging choices can either reduce or expand their product’s carbon footprint. 

According to research by McKinsey, packaging sustainability is achievable. It can be done by eliminating packaging in the environment and increasing recycling efforts. Furthermore, reducing the carbon footprint of packaging materials, and using more recycled alternatives can make a significant impact. 

For materials such as aluminium cans and glass, this is already taking place, as the majority of these containers are recycled. 

However, the most traditional forms of packaging use plastic materials. Over the years, it has fallen out of favour and many businesses have moved away from using virgin plastics. This is because it has low recycling value and is often incinerated instead of recycled. 

As a result, there has been a gradual shift towards more renewable resources, such as bioplastics, as well as biodegradable and compostable options

It is possible for roasters to estimate the carbon footprint of their coffee packaging, as there are a number of calculation tools available online. 

In order to do this, roasters will have to get detailed information about the packaging material’s manufacturing processes and transportation. In addition, they will need to determine whether the packaging is composted, recycled, or sent to a landfill.

These calculators often produce interesting insights. For example, when the bioplastic polylactic acid (PLA) is compared against polyethylene terephthalate (PET), it seems like PLA may have a smaller carbon footprint.

That being said, in many instances PET is easier to recycle as the infrastructure for doing so is more accessible for both businesses and consumers.

Factors like this can affect the overall emissions that one form of packaging produces throughout its lifespan. 

Unbleached brown kraft paper coffee pouch on wooden counter surrounded by scattered roasted coffee beans.

How to minimise your coffee packaging’s carbon footprint

Presently, there is no simple solution to reducing or eliminating the carbon footprint of coffee packaging. In many cases, the information needed to do so is inaccessible or inaccurate.

Nevertheless, there are steps roasters can take to help minimise the impact of coffee packaging on their overall carbon footprint. 

The first step is to choose appropriate packaging materials, such as those that can be properly and easily recycled, and will not end up in a landfill. 

This may involve ensuring customers have access to a recycling collection system. Specifically, one that sorts and processes the chosen packaging materials properly.

If such facilities are not available, roasters can collect empty coffee packaging themselves to ensure it is properly managed. For example, Terracycle runs a programme in several countries where roasters can request a box to collect their used packaging.

When it is full, the box can be sent back to Terracycle directly, who will manage its recycling or responsible disposal.

It is also vital that customers are aware of what the coffee packaging is made of. Roasters can share why they have chosen this particular material, and inform customers of how they should dispose of it.

Recent research indicates confusion over packaging disposal is rife. This can be intensified when it comes to a typical coffee pouch, as it often includes a degassing valve and sealing mechanism that is made from a different material. 

For example, a roaster may have a compostable coffee bag that features a degassing valve that must be recycled with plastics. This information should be printed on coffee packaging to ensure customers dispose of all components properly. 

When it comes to reducing their carbon footprint, roasters are unlikely to reach zero. However, every effort they make to mitigate the impact of their business counts. 

Educating customers about the impact of their coffee choices can help them make better buying decisions. Furthermore, investing in sustainable packaging materials is another step towards reducing the carbon footprint of the coffee industry. 

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable coffee packaging options, from side gusset bags to flat-bottom pouches. Roasters can choose from kraft paper, rice paper, PLA, and LDPE, all of which minimise waste and contribute to a circular economy.

Additionally, our degassing valves and resealable zippers are fully recyclable and our water-based inks are low in volatile organic compounds, so they can be easily removed for recycling or composting.

For more information on compostable coffee packaging, contact our team

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How much does packaging contribute to the carbon footprint of a bag of coffee?

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