Breaking down bioplastic packaging

Hayley Osbourne
May 12, 2023
An image of custom printed coffee bags made from bioplastics, bioplastic coffee packaging, in an article on breaking down bioplastic packaging

As of 2019, 9.5 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced – equating to more than a tonne per person alive today. This has increased the demand for sustainable packaging alternatives and given rise to bioplastics. Made from natural, plant-based sources such as cornstarch and sugarcane, bioplastics are a more sustainable alternative to traditional plastics. For instance, compostable bioplastics break down within six months, while traditional plastics may take decades to decompose. 

More so, bioplastics are less likely to leech hazardous chemicals or break down in microplastics during the degradation process, which can negatively affect the surrounding environment. Additionally, reports indicate the carbon footprint of manufacturing bioplastics is 75% lower than that of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics.

Factors such as these have made bioplastics one of the preferred forms of packaging for a growing number of eco-conscious consumers. Furthermore, consumers such as these are more likely to support brands that prioritise sustainability. Luckily, businesses have several forms of bioplastic packaging to choose from. 

Read on to learn more about bioplastics, the materials made to use them, and which form is best suited to your coffee business. 

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Sign up

Why are bioplastics so popular in coffee packaging?

According to the National Coffee Association (NCA), coffee consumption reached a two-decade high in 2022. From takeaway cups and lids to coffee bags themselves, that is a significant contribution to plastic pollution. Packaging materials that are unable to be recycled or composted often end up in a landfill or make their way into the ocean. Each year, plastic kills 1 million seabirds and 100,000 sea mammals, turtles, and fish. Researchers have found that 100% of the animals washed up on beaches in the UK have ingested plastic. 

More so, in the US alone, 16 billion single-use coffee cups are used each year. If each cup has a traditional plastic lining, it may take a minimum of 30 years for them to break down. It is important to note that even if the cups are made from recyclable paper, the plastic lining will prevent them from being recycled. 

As a result, coffee packaging and cup linings made from polylactic acid (PLA) have grown in popularity. PLA is a polyester derived from renewable biomass, typically from fermented plant starch, such as corn, cassava, sugarcane or sugar beet pulp. PLA is a biodegradable bioplastic that is sustainable to make and is a cost-effective option for most businesses. 

As speciality roasters require packaging that protects the coffee beans and keeps them fresh, PLA is a feasible option, as it can also be used to line single-use cups. 

When used in coffee packaging, PLA helps keep the product fresh, it is durable and tear-resistant. When used to coat takeaway coffee cups, it provides a leak-free material that can withstand temperatures up to 120°C (248°F). It also degrades within three months when disposed of.

An image of coffee packaging made from bioplastics, bioplastic coffee bag, in an article on breaking down bioplastic packaging

What natural resources are used to make bioplastics?

In addition to PLA, there are several sustainable resources that are often used to make bioplastic coffee packaging.

Avocado pits

A Mexican chemical engineering company recently created a bioplastic made from avocado pits. BIOFASE products claim to be made from 60% avocado seed biopolymers and 40% synthetic organic compounds. 

Interestingly, the cultivation of avocado trees absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and uses it to develop tissue within the plant. More so, it is reported that these bioplastics completely biodegrade within 240 days.

Pectocellulosic bioplastic

Fruit processing waste, particularly citrus peels, can yield high-performance pectocellulosic bioplastics, as they are rich in pectin and cellulose, which can be used to create bioplastic films. These films offer excellent mechanical properties, easy recycling, and rapid biodegradation. Additionally, pectocellulosic bioplastic is known to exhibit excellent water stability and water vapour barrier properties. 

Sugar cane polyvinyl alcohol (PVOH)

Arizona-based Bioplastics International recently launched a fossil fuel free water-soluble replacement for petroleum-based plastics. The brand’s water-soluble polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) is made from sugar cane and alcohol, unlike other PVAs, which are made from fossil fuel natural gas.

Reportedly, the water-soluble, net zero carbon dioxide polymer can be mass-produced in vast quantities. Furthermore, it can be used for blown films, extrusion, or injection moulding processes, and it is stronger and more durable than petroleum-based plastic.

Organic waste 

A startup company called Genecis Bioindustries is working with specialised bacteria to convert organic waste, such as bread crusts and other food scraps, into bioplastics. Instead of using food-source or food-competing feedstocks like many other bioplastic producers, the company uses organic waste streams, which help to enable the development of a circular economy solution at scale. 

An image of a coffee roaster filling bioplastic coffee packaging with freshly roasted coffee beans in an article on breaking down bioplastic packaging

What bioplastic coffee packaging is best for you?

Switching to bioplastics could play an important role in the shift away from fossil fuel dependency. That said, packaging for roasted coffee must meet certain requirements to protect it from deterioration, which is why roasters should research the coffee packaging materials before making an investment. 

For instance, PLA is a strong, durable, and affordable material that will decompose within three months. However, when disposed of incorrectly, it is important to note PLA is unable to break down in a landfill. Additionally, PLA has a higher permeability than other plastics, which means moisture and oxygen will go through it more easily. Therefore, roasters should consider using PLA as a part of multilayered coffee packaging. 

While investing in bioplastics made from avocado pits will provide additional income for avocado farmers, recent price spikes have increased Mexico’s inflation, which may negatively affect producers. More so, avocados are grown in tropical climates, and as climate change threatens the typical weather patterns of these areas, they have become increasingly difficult to grow. This means the countries that can grow them must destroy large amounts of land to establish new avocado farms to satisfy the demand.

Pectocellulosic bioplastics are still fairly new to the packaging industry. Despite being made from renewable sources and limiting waste, the growing demand for bioplastics has created competition for food sources, which may contribute to the global food crisis. In addition, citrus trees are often grown in a monoculture environment and require pesticides, which can negatively affect the ecosystem and wildlife. 

On the other hand, sugar cane polyvinyl alcohol (PVOH) is stronger than traditional plastics with the added benefit of being safe for consumption. That said, this material is unrecyclable, and the lack of biodiversity of sugarcane crops can be detrimental to local wildlife. Bioplastics made using organic waste can help tackle the issue of food waste and plastic pollution at the same time. 

Interestingly, studies found that of all plant-derived polymers, PLA displays barrier qualities that are as effective as that of synthetic plastics. Furthermore, by adding certain parts of the coffee husk to PLA during the starch phase, it can improve its thermal behaviour, as well as its tensile and barrier properties. Paired with other sustainable materials such as kraft or rice paper, it could provide an entirely compostable, protective, and design-friendly option for your coffee bags.

At MTPak Coffee, our coffee packaging solutions offer high-barrier protection, while being made from biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable materials that will help reduce your carbon footprint. 

To provide additional protection to your coffee bags, we offer a variety of coffee boxes made from recycled cardboard. With their high level of strength, durability, and weather resistance, coupled with our wide range of size options, these boxes are the perfect solution to support your subscription services. 

All of our coffee packaging options can be fully customised to your specifications, including debossing, embossing, holographic effects, UV spot finishes, and custom printing using digital printing technology. This allows us to offer low minimum order quantities (MOQs) to micro-roasters, as well as a quick turnaround time of 40 hours and 24-hour shipping time.

To learn more about sustainable coffee packaging made from bioplastics, contact our team.

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Sign up

MTPak recommends