What is the shelf life of compostable coffee packaging?

Aidan Gant
July 1, 2022
What is the shelf life of compostable coffee packaging?

Since mass production began, an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the 1950s.

This is according to a 2017 study, which also reveals only 9% of this plastic is recycled correctly. Of the waste that is not recycled, 12% is incinerated while the remaining percentage ends up polluting the environment by sitting on landfills. 

As it is not always practical to avoid traditional forms of packaging, the ideal solution would be to reduce single-use plastic consumption, or make packaging materials more sustainable.. 

Across many industries, including the specialty coffee sector, traditional plastics are being replaced with reusable or environmentally friendly materials, such as compostable coffee packaging. 

That said, compostable coffee packaging is made from organic matter that breaks down over time. As a result, some in the coffee industry have concerns about its shelf-life. However, when stored correctly, compostable coffee bags are exceptionally durable and effective at protecting coffee beans. 

Find out more about how roasters and coffee shops can extend the shelf life of compostable coffee packaging.

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Close up image of compostable coffee packaging made from unbleached kraft paper.

What is compostable coffee packaging?

Compostable coffee packaging is traditionally made from materials that will, under the right circumstances, break down into its organic components. 

Usually, it is made using renewable resources such as maize, cornstarch, and sugarcane. Once broken down, these components leave no negative impact on the environment.   

As it is primarily made from organic matter, compostable packaging has become popular within the food and beverage industry. Notably, many specialty roasters and coffee shops use it to package and sell coffee. 

Available in a range of sizes, shapes, and styles, compostable packaging is distinct from other types of bioplastics

The term ‘bioplastic’ covers a broad spectrum of materials. It can refer to plastic materials that are produced from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oils.

Caucasian female hand holding out compostable coffee bag made from unbleached kraft paper on bright pink background.

Compostable bioplastics, such as polylactic acid (PLA) are particularly popular among the coffee sector. This is because they only leave water, carbon dioxide, and biomass behind when they are properly disposed of, helping to lower a business’ carbon footprint

PLA is traditionally made using fermented sugars from starch plants, such as corn, sugar beet, and cassava pulps. The extracted sugars are fermented into a lactic acid and then undergo a process of polymerisation to produce PLA pellets. 

These pellets can be used as a thermoplastic polyester to produce other items, such as bottles and biodegradable medical devices, including screws, pins, and rods. 

The barrier properties of PLA make it perfectly suited for packaging coffee as it is naturally heat resistant. Furthermore, it provides as good of an oxygen barrier as traditional thermoplastics. 

Coupled with moisture and light, oxygen and heat are the primary threats to coffee freshness. Therefore, packaging needs to prevent these factors affecting, and possibly degrading, the beans inside. 

As a result, the majority of coffee bags require multiple layers to protect and preserve coffee. The most common pairing for compostable coffee packaging is kraft paper with a PLA liner. 

Kraft paper not only suits the minimalist aesthetic that many coffee businesses tend to favour, but it is also fully compostable. 

Furthermore, kraft paper can take on water-based inks, and be used in modern digital printing methods – both of which are significantly better for the environment. 

While compostable packaging may not be suitable for industries aiming to preserve their products over many years, it is a perfect fit for specialty coffee. This is because PLA will perform almost exactly the same as traditional polymers for up to a year.

In an industry where sustainability is often at the forefront of consumers’ minds, it is no surprise that roasters and coffee shops are eager to adopt compostable coffee packaging. 

Close up image of compostable coffee packaging made from bleached kraft paper on wooden shelves.

What is the shelf life of compostable coffee packaging?

Compostable packaging is designed in such a way that it will only break down under very specific circumstances

It requires the right microbial conditions, oxygen and moisture levels, and warmth, as well as a significant amount of time to break down. 

This means that it will remain durable and able to protect coffee beans – provided it is stored in a cool, well ventilated, and dry area. 

As a result, the conditions required for it to break down have to be carefully controlled. For this reason, some compostable packaging may not be suitable for home composting. 

Instead, PLA-lined compostable coffee packaging should be placed in the right recycling bin in order to go to the correct facility for recycling. 

For example, some 170 such industrial composting facilities are currently available in the UK. Another scheme that is becoming increasingly popular is the option for customers to return used packaging to a roastery or coffee shop. 

The owners can then ensure they are disposed of correctly. One UK-based roastery that does this well is Origin Coffee. Since 2019, it has facilitated the collection of their industrially compostable packaging elements. 

Furthermore, since June 2022, it now uses 100% home compostable coffee packaging – although this is still not available for kerbside collections. 

Image of male and female Caucasian roasters packing roasted coffee into compostable coffee bags made from brown kraft paper.

How can roasters extend the shelf life of their compostable coffee packaging?

Essentially, compostable coffee packaging must be able to hold roasted coffee with minimal loss of freshness for 9 to 12 months. 

Tests have shown compostable PLA-lined coffee bags can outperform petro-chemical packaging in terms of barrier properties and loss of freshness. 

Licensed Q graders were asked to test coffees stored in different types of bags over a 16-week period. Additionally, they were asked to carry out blind cuppings scoring for loss of freshness over several key indicators.

The results showed the compostable alternatives perform just as well or better in terms of aromatic and flavour retention. Furthermore, they noted there was only minimal loss of acidity over the period. 

Compostable coffee packaging requires similar storage conditions to that of coffee. It should be kept in a cool dry space, away from direct sunlight. These are all factors that roasters and coffee shops should remember when storing any coffee bags. 

That said, extra care must be taken with PLA-lined bags, which may deteriorate faster if exposed to any of these conditions.

Provided it is looked after properly, compostable packaging can help a business achieve its sustainability goals, and appeal to a growing number of eco-conscious consumers.  

Multilayer LDPE coffee bag with PLA lining in an article on the shelf life of compostable coffee packaging.

As with many things in retail coffee, the key here is communicating best practice with customers. Roasters can choose to digitally print instructions on how compostable coffee bags can be stored to ensure the coffee remains fresh. 

Additionally, they can instruct consumers on where to dispose of their PLA-lined bags so they can be recycled correctly. 

At MTPak Coffee, we offer roasters and coffee shops a range of environmentally friendly packaging that will protect your coffee from light exposure and showcase your commitment to sustainability

Our multilayer pouches made from rice or kraft paper use PLA laminates to maintain the recyclable and compostable properties of the packaging, while providing additional barriers to oxygen, light, heat, and moisture.

For more information on compostable coffee packaging, contact our team

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Aidan Gant
Aidan Gant

Aidan spent his early career working in cafes alongside coffee roasters and in other hospitality positions. He owned a vegan tapas restaurant, specialty coffee bar, and live jazz venue, which he operated with his partner before closing during the Covid-19 pandemic. Since 2020, he has made his living writing about coffee and the environment, and is currently a researcher and doctoral student in Creative Writing.

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