Considering the transportation footprint of sustainable coffee packaging

Antony Papandreou
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November 15, 2022
Considering the transportation footprint of sustainable coffee packaging

In keeping with the truism that nothing worthwhile is ever easy, establishing effective sustainability practices in a business can be a challenge. 

Other than trimming the sales on operations to minimise waste and other inefficiencies, there is also the sourcing of non-perishable items, such as coffee packaging.

There is no doubt the increased awareness of sustainability in the coffee industry is a positive step. That said, it may have created a paradigm that potentially rewards companies that only pay lip service – holding them accountable for the intent instead of the impact. 

It is important to note companies producing sustainable coffee packaging also face the same challenges of streamlining operations and sourcing materials. Therefore, working towards carbon neutrality requires due diligence.

Many roasters and coffee shops believe investing in sustainable coffee packaging is one of the most effective ways to affect a positive impact. 

While this may be true, they also need to consider the environmental impact behind the transportation of their sustainable coffee packaging.

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An image of a roaster holding a sustainable coffee bag made from kraft paper in an article on considering the transportation footprint of sustainable coffee packaging.

How does packaging contribute to coffee’s carbon footprint? 

Roasting, packing, and brewing represent a small part of the overall carbon footprint of coffee.

These processes should be one of the easiest parts of the problem to address, as the majority fall under the control of the roaster. 

For farmers in producing countries, coffee is a way of life and for many, that life can be strenuous. Understandably, changing conditions in producing countries can be challenging, as cultivating coffee plants requires commitments that can be difficult to mitigate. 

However, for roasters, sustainability can be as simple as making the correct choice.

For example, the average carbon footprint of arabica coffee was calculated as 15.33 (±0.72) kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per 1kg of green coffee (kg CO2e kg−1) for conventional coffee production, and 3.51 (±0.13) kg CO2e kg−1 for sustainable coffee production.

The biggest difference in the number above was cargo shipping instead of air freight. 

Coffee packaging represents around 4% of the total carbon footprint. While the percentage may seem small, the significance becomes clear when the scale of the coffee industry is considered. 

Around 9.5 billion kilograms of coffee are produced every year. Moving from plastic in favour of more sustainable materials can reduce this by 85%.

That said, for sustainable packaging to be effective, the manufacturer must also be conscious of their carbon footprint and how they purchase the raw ingredients.

An image of a coffee shop stacking shelves with white multilayer coffee packaging made from LDPE and PLA in an article on considering the transportation footprint of sustainable coffee packaging.

What is the carbon footprint of sustainable packaging materials?

According to an article by McKinsey & Company, sustainability in packaging can be broken into the following three key elements.

First is to eliminate the leakage of packaging into the environment. Second is to increase the recyclability and use of recycled content in the packaging, while the third is to reduce the carbon footprint of packaging. 

In essence, sustainable packaging should help save energy and reduce pressure on natural resources. 

It is important to note achieving high scores in all three categories is rare. Therefore, businesses must look at their individual situations to find a solution that suits where they are. 

To do so, the end-to-end life cycle of the packaging must be considered. For example, materials such as rice paper and kraft paper may score high in not leaking harmful materials into the environment.

That said, they may have a relatively high carbon footprint due to the production process and transporting of raw ingredients.

Both may also score low for recyclability, as kraft and rice paper packaging are often lined with polylactic acid (PLA) or low-density polyethylene (LDPE), which are unable to be recycled together.

Despite having a low score in the category of leaking materials into the environment, packaging made from LDPE requires less energy to produce than kraft or rice paper coffee bags and is easier to recycle. 

As a result, LDPE coffee packaging may be the more sustainable option. 

That said, roasters and coffee shops will need to consider the local recycling infrastructure. If it is unable to recycle LDPE packaging correctly, this may alter a roaster’s decision to make the switch. 

For recyclable material to be counted as sustainable, it needs to be recycled. It appears as if nothing can tick all three boxes, which also holds for bio-plastics. 

While bioplastics are compostable, they require specific conditions in order to break down completely.

If left in a landfill without the correct temperature and oxygen levels, bioplastics may release methane as they break down. 

For roasters to understand the best option for their business, they would need to calculate the impact of all the available options. 

This includes factoring in what recycling and composting facilities are available in the local area and how far the packaging would be shipped to reach the roastery.

An image of a coffee roaster packaging roast coffee into kraft paper coffee bags with a PLA lining in an article on considering the transportation footprint of sustainable coffee packaging.

Why should roasters consider the carbon footprint of sustainable materials? 

Across all industries, being sustainable has to be more about the impact, and less about the intent. 

The effects of climate change and the increasing plastic waste crisis are no longer issues society and businesses alike can ignore. 

Purchasing packaging based purely on its recyclability, as opposed to working on the actual carbon footprint, is often a wasted effort with minimal reward. 

Furthermore, it can serve to increase a roaster’s carbon footprint.

More to the point, if the packaging manufacturer fails in its sustainability goals, they pass on its carbon footprint to its customers. 

This is why, at MTPak Coffee, we use third-party inspectors to verify all our sustainability claims, so you can have confidence in your purchases and know that we are doing our part to reduce your carbon footprint.

An image of a coffee roaster packing roast coffee into a white multilayer LDPE coffee bag with a PLA lining in an article on considering the transportation footprint of sustainable coffee packaging.

Additionally, we offer a range of 100% recyclable coffee packaging options made from renewable materials such as kraft paper, rice paper, or multilayer LDPE packaging with an environmentally friendly PLA lining, all of which minimise waste and contribute to a circular economy.

More so, we give our roasters complete control over the design process by allowing them to build their own coffee bags.

Our design team is available to help you create the ideal coffee packaging.

Plus, we are able to custom-print coffee bags using innovative digital printing technology, with a quick turnaround time of 40-hours and 24-hour shipping time.

MTPak Coffee also offers low minimum order quantities (MOQs) to micro-roasters who are looking to remain agile while showcasing brand identity and a commitment to the environment.

For more information about sustainable, custom-printed coffee packaging, contact our team.

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Antony Papandreou
Antony Papandreou

Antony is a writer for MTPak Coffee and is very passionate about his craft.

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