How long does it take for PLA coffee bags to decompose?

Janice Kanniah
July 12, 2022
How long does it take for PLA coffee bags to decompose?

Created using sustainable and renewable resources, such as corn or sugar cane, bioplastics comprise bio-based polymers.

Bioplastics perform almost identically to petroleum-based plastics and are fast becoming the more popular packaging material. Notably, experts predict bioplastics may reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 70%. Additionally, they use 65% less energy during manufacturing, making them the more environmentally friendly choice. 

Many types of bioplastics are available, but packaging material made from polylactic acid (PLA) is most commonly used. PLA has enormous potential for roasters who are looking for an attractive yet eco-friendly material to package their coffee. 

That said, PLA coffee bags can be prone to greenwashing as they are only recyclable and biodegradable under strict circumstances. As legislation catches up to the rapidly developing bioplastics industry, it is up to roasters and coffee shops to educate consumers about the nature of PLA packaging — and disposing of it correctly. 

Read on to find out how long it takes PLA coffee bags to decompose, and how this can be conveyed to consumers.

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Close up image of PLA coffee bags, one red and white, one completely white, to show how long it takes PLA coffee bags to decompose

What is PLA?

Wallace Carothers was an American chemist and inventor who is most famous for creating nylon and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and therefore, revolutionising the synthetic fibre industry.

Additionally, he discovered PLA. Along with other researchers, Carothers discovered pure lactic acid could be processed and synthesised into polymers.

Lactic acid is a traditional food preservative, flavouring and curing agent. It can be transformed into polymers by fermenting it in vegetation-rich starch and other polysaccharides or sugars. 

The resulting polymer could form thermoplastic filaments that are biodegradable and non-toxic. 

However, it has limited mechanical capacity and temperature resistances. This made it less popular compared to polyethylene terephthalate, which was more accessible at the time.

That said, its low weight and biocompatibility meant PLA could be used in biomedics – most extensively as a tissue engineering scaffold material, sutures, or screws.

PLA allows these elements to stay in place for a time before naturally and harmlessly breaking down. 

Over time, it was discovered that blending PLA with certain starches could improve its biodegradability and performance while lowering production costs. Combined with injection moulding and other melt processing technology, this helped create a PLA film that could be used to create flexible packaging. 

Researchers predict PLA will become more affordable to produce, which bodes well for coffee roasters and coffee shops. 

The global PLA market is set to exceed $2.7million by 2030, as consumers’ preference for sustainable and recyclable packaging materials increases demand for flexible packaging.

Furthermore, PLA may be produced using agricultural and forestry waste so that it does not compete with food sources. 

Close up image of brown and black PLA coffee bag showing how long it can take for PLA coffee bags to decompose

How long do PLA coffee bags take to decompose?

Traditional petroleum-based plastics can take up to 1,000 years to degrade. 

Alternatively, it can take between six months and two years for PLA to break down into carbon dioxide (CO2) and water.

That said, collection facilities for biowaste such as PLA are still adapting to the developing bioplastics industry. Currently, only 16% of potential waste is captured in the European Union. 

As a result, much PLA packaging may contaminate different waste streams, mixing with traditional plastics and ending up in landfills or incinerators. 

It is essential that PLA coffee bags are disposed of in a specialised industrial composting facility where they can be broken down completely. This process takes up to 180 days thanks to a specific combination of certain temperatures and levels of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen. 

When PLA packaging is not broken down in these conditions, the decomposition process may result in microplastics, which harm the environment. 

The process becomes more complicated as coffee packaging is rarely made from a single material. For instance, the majority of coffee bags contain degassing valves, tin ties, or zippers. 

Additionally, it may be lined for extra barrier protection. Factors such as these can make it complicated to dispose of PLA coffee bags, as each component may require separate processing. 

Image of female roaster packaging roasted coffee in PLA coffee bags

Using PLA coffee bags 

Using PLA to package coffee is a practical and environmentally friendly choice for many roasters. 

One major advantage is that both ground and roasted coffee are dry goods. This means, after use, PLA coffee bags are free from contamination and will not require cleaning. 

Additionally, roasters and coffee shops can enlist customers to help ensure PLA packaging does not end up in landfills. It is essential that consumers understand which recycling bin PLA coffee bags must go into after use. This can be done by printing separation and recycling instructions on coffee packaging. 

If there are no local facilities available to collect and process PLA, roasters and coffee shops can ask customers to return their empty packaging in exchange for a discounted coffee. 

Then, business owners can ensure empty PLA coffee bags are taken to the right facility for correct recycling. 

In the near future, it may become easier to dispose of PLA packaging. Notably, at the 2022 United Nations Environment Assembly, 175 countries vowed to end their plastic pollution.

As a result, more governments could invest in the infrastructure required to process bioplastics in the future. 

Close up image of white PLA coffee bag surrounded by roasted coffee beans.

As plastic pollution continues to hamper the planet and harm animal and human health, the push towards using bioplastics is becoming stronger. 

Partnering with a coffee packaging specialist will ensure you integrate eco-friendly packaging that actually makes a difference and doesn’t create additional problems for all involved. 

MTPak Coffee offers a range of coffee bags that can be fitted with a PLA interior. When added to kraft paper, it produces a fully compostable option for customers. 

Our range of packaging also includes recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable options such as rice paper, all of which are made from renewable materials. 

Furthermore, we can use digital printing to customise coffee bags to convey separation and recycling instructions on coffee bags. With a 40-hour turnaround and 24-hour shipping time, we are able to offer low minimum order quantities (MOQs) of packaging, no matter what size or material.

We also offer fully recyclable, BPA-free degassing valves that can be recycled along with the rest of the coffee packaging. In addition to creating a user-friendly product for consumers, these valves reduce the negative impact of coffee packaging on the environment.

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

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