Multilayer coffee packaging: How do we make it sustainable?

Janice Kanniah
July 5, 2022
Multi-layer coffee packaging: How do we make it sustainable?

While coffee beans are considered a “shelf-stable dry good”, factors such as oxygen, light, and moisture may cause it to lose freshness quickly. 

Therefore, it is essential coffee beans are packaged in a way that prevents this. As a result, many roasters choose multilayer coffee packaging as a single layer is insufficient. That said, one challenge of multilayer packaging is that each layer must be separated before recycling.

The adhesive joining the layers, as well as the packaging’s ink and labels, can further complicate the recycling process. This means multilayer packaging often ends up in landfills or destined for incineration. 

Recent research shows customer expectations regarding packaging are only getting higher. It is estimated by 2040, customers are unlikely to tolerate having to choose between packaging sustainability and convenience. 

Consequently, if the popularity of multilayer coffee packaging continues to grow, changes need to be made. While biodegradable and compostable options are available, many consumers find recycling instructions difficult to understand. 

Find out how roasters and coffee shops can help make their multilayer coffee packaging more sustainable. 

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Image of examples of multilayer coffee packaging on yellow background.

What is multilayer packaging?

As coffee has been consumed for years, the way it is packaged has evolved over time. 

During the 1700s and early 1800s, coffee was traditionally packaged in large volumes and stored in greased or waxed leather bags, or jute sacks. This soon switched to consumer sized pots, jars, and tin cans. 

In the late 1800s, coffee was packaged in airtight paper bags, as this was found to preserve coffee freshness for longer. As the 1900s progressed and research into coffee deepened, vacuum sealing was introduced to prevent its oxidation. 

The invention of the degassing valve prompted coffee roasters to move on from cumbersome tin cans to pouches. A degassing valve is a one-way vent that helps keep coffee packaging airtight by relieving the pressure of escaped gases, without allowing oxygen to enter. 

Then, as coffee began travelling further to meet rising demand, roasters realised single layer packaging did not protect the coffee effectively. They found layering packaging materials allowed them to brand their coffee while keeping it safe and fresh. 

Modern multilayer coffee packaging combines low-density polyethylene (LDPE) or polyethylene (PE) with an ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) or aluminium foil lining. That said, foil is more expensive and, if bent or creased, will not bounce back to its original shape. 

The outer layer is usually chosen for its mechanical stability, structural integrity, and its printability. Furthermore, it must be able to withstand punctures and scratching that may occur during transit.

The inner layers are chosen for their ability to absorb UV rays and keep out moisture and oxygen.

One of the most common methods used to produce multilayer packaging is to add LDPE pellets into an extruder, along with colourants and additives. A rotating screw pushes the resin into a barrel, which heats it and pushes it through a screen to remove any contaminants.

It then enters a die to mould it into shape. For pouches, this may be a film roll which can be fed into a form fill seal machine, or sent to a packager to be formed into pre-made bags. 

Image of Caucasian male hand holding multilayer coffee bag and pouring out roasted coffee beans.

What are the drawbacks of multilayer packaging?

Notably, multilayer packaging is ideal for protecting coffee and preserving its lifespan. 

That said, it can have a negative impact on the environment if not executed and used responsibly. 

As multilayer packaging frequently combines two different ‌materials, they must be processed separately in order to be recycled. This means the layers must be separated before recycling, or the empty bag must be placed in a designated recycling bin. 

Then it can be sent for processing at a suitable facility. However, roasters and coffee shops often neglect to communicate this to customers. As a result, used coffee packaging is often tossed in with regular recycling, with the assumption it will be processed correctly. 

In the past, there were no real consequences for businesses using this type of packaging. That said, governments around the world are taking drastic steps to curb all forms of pollution, which is often dominated by packaging waste. 

The European Commission aims to have all packaging made reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030. It means businesses can no longer take a passive role in what happens to their packaging after disposal.

Furthermore, the inks and additives used to brand the packaging also need to be considered, as these need to be removed before either layer can be processed.

Image of Caucasian female holding red multilayer coffee bag.

Can multilayer packaging be sustainable?

Multilayer coffee packaging may be more challenging to recycle, but it is not an impossible task. 

Waiting for governments to make the recycling facilities more accessible may not be feasible. This is due to the sheer diversity in multilayer packaging and its relatively small volumes compared to mono material packaging.

As a result, multilayer packaging is not as desirable for municipal recyclers to collect and process. These recyclers tend to focus on heavier, more valuable waste, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and other forms of rigid packaging.

Therefore, it is up to coffee shops and roasters to manage what happens to coffee packaging after use before it becomes mandated. This will help avoid penalties and fines, and also impress customers who are looking to support brands that share their concern for the planet. 

One way to start is by moving away from petroleum-based plastics and investing in compostable and biodegradable kraft or rice paper. These coffee bags can be lined with polylactic acid (PLA) or LDPE, which are easy to recycle. 

Additionally, coffee bags can communicate how customers can prepare their packaging for disposal. Printing clear instructions on how to separate and bin the different materials can help prevent the used bag from ending up in a landfill.

Alternatively, roasters and coffee shops can investigate what waste collection services are available locally. 

If no collection or processing facility exists, local businesses can collect customers’ empty packaging by having them post it back or drop it off. Then they can ensure it is sent to the correct facility and properly recycled.

The key to this is communicating with customers. Roasters and coffee shops should make their recycling intentions clear, and provide instructions on how customers can help them reduce the carbon footprint of the business.

This may make customers feel that their coffee consumption choices are helping the environment, and may encourage repeat sales. 

Image of white multilayer coffee packaging on barista counter with barista working in background.

At MTPak Coffee, we have a range of sustainable multilayer packaging options that will protect your coffee from moisture, light, oxygen, and other factors that affect quality.

Specialty roasters and coffee shops can choose from a range of materials, including kraft paper or rice paper, that have been reinforced with multiple layers that can be easily separated and recycled

Additionally, we can help with packaging design and choosing the right packaging shape and material. We are able to custom design and digitally print coffee packaging with just a 40-hour turnaround and 24-hour shipping time.

We also offer a perfect solution for micro-roasters by providing low minimum order quantities (MOQ) on both recyclable and traditional options.

For more information on sustainable multilayer coffee packaging, contact our team. 

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Janice Kanniah
Janice Kanniah

Janice is freelance writer based in South Africa and has written for MTPak Coffee since 2020. Her interests are in writing about sustainability, the circular economy, and the future of the environment.

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