A customer’s first experience with a coffee is likely to be through its aroma. Before a consumer tastes or observes the beans or grind, they will open the bag of coffee and smell it. Roasters know this, so they invest heavily in choosing the right type of packaging for their products. It is public knowledge the right packaging materials will help preserve the quality of a coffee for longer. This is absolutely essential when selling coffee online and integral to keeping customers coming back for more in a market where it’s never been easier to buy a diverse range of specialty offerings.
In the past, roasters have used foils and plastic packaging to preserve the characteristics of coffee. While this may have benefitted the coffee, it has been detrimental to the environment — and possibly even people’s health.
This is why more consumers and governments are penalising plastics and incentivising the use of sustainably produced, renewable, and eco-friendly packaging materials. Roasters who want to make the switch will be presented with many options, including compostable packaging. However, could the qualities that make these bags eco-friendly also accelerate the loss of aroma in coffee?
To learn more about whether compostable packaging may affect a coffee’s aroma, I spoke with Tom Saxon, Head of Coffee at Batch Coffee in the UK.
Why is compostable packaging important?
While plastic is one of the world’s most diverse, affordable, and mass-produced packaging materials, it is also responsible for a large part of the world’s current pollution levels. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), global plastic production almost doubled between 2000 and 2019. With the recent Covid-19 pandemic having necessitated plastic packaging and protective items to prevent the virus from spreading, this number could be even higher.
Early in 2023, members of an intergovernmental political forum consisting of the USA, Japan, Germany, France, the UK, Italy, and Canada, known as G7, committed to eliminating plastic pollution by 2040. Being only a few decades away, governments are likely to ramp up the crackdown on plastic packaging. The consensus is recycling is unable to curb the issue with only 9% of all plastic ending up this way. It needs to be phased out at the source.
This is already affecting coffee roasters around the world. “As roasters, we have a responsibility to try to reduce as much plastic use as possible,” says Tom, who has over 10 years of experience working with specialty coffee. “Although many roasters use recycled or recyclable plastic bags, I think, as a business, it’s important to lead by example.” One way he is doing this is at Batch Coffee by using compostable coffee packaging.
Compostable packaging and coffee
When visualising a compostable bag, those unfamiliar with packaging may think of it like a larger tea bag – semi-translucent and breathable, making it ill-suited to store a time-sensitive item like coffee. In reality, compostable bags have undergone a constant evolution since they were first developed.
“At first glance, it may be difficult to spot the difference between compostable packaging and other coffee bag materials,” Tom explains. “On closer inspection, you may find that compostable bags are slightly thinner. For me, there’s no difference in quality in terms of the material and print.”
Most compostable packaging will break down in a special industrially controlled aerobic degradation process over a three to six-month period. A recent Packaging Gateway article reveals it is in roasters’ best interests to switch to compostable packaging as a high consumer demand supports it, despite it being costlier than traditional plastic. That said, compostable bags do come with certain considerations roasters may not have considered before.
“Pros are the environmental aspects, and the fact you can rest assured the bags will break down in good time in your compost pile. A con is that they have to be used within a certain time frame as they can break down. So, it’s important to order packaging strategically. Another con is that they may not be as robust as other materials,” Tom says.
“While there are compromises with compostable bags at the moment, I think the pros outweigh the cons. Batch Coffee has sent tens of thousands of compostable coffee subscription bags into the UK postal service, which can be rough, and never received any notice that the bags had failed.”
Do compostable bags impact aroma loss?
Coffee will not rot, but it will degrade in quality over time. “Like with many specialty coffee attributes, we’re fighting to maintain as much of the profile as possible as time goes on,” Tom explains. “Coffee aromatics are one of the few factors that graders rate: it defines the coffee’s score before sale and you can tell if a coffee is quality if it possesses a complex aroma.”
Tom warns against assuming all compostable packaging will be of high quality. “If low-quality compostable packaging isn’t airtight, it means the oxygen has been in contact with the coffee for a period and the coffee may taste flat and unapparent when brewed.” Roasters can avoid this by opting for compostable packaging from a reputable supplier that showcases high-quality products.
Tom also recommends roasters consider their personal needs to balance the packaging’s performance and compostability. “I found it challenging to balance compostable packaging’s environmental, design, functionality, and cost factors. You may have to compromise on one or two of these factors. For me, the environmental factor was most important. To determine if a compostable coffee packaging provider is legitimate, roasters can request to see samples of past work or to speak to other roasters who have used them. Furthermore, roasters can request samples or begin with a short packaging run as a trial.
As a roaster, it is important to remember your individual needs may impact your options. For example, if you sell large volumes of ground coffee over enormous distances, compostable packaging may be unfeasible. However, you could find it useful for limited edition micro lot runs or for packaging smaller volumes of whole-bean coffee. Educating customers will be key to this, so they understand what the packaging is capable of and how it factors into their coffee’s cost.
Our line of coffee packaging options is made from renewable materials, such as compostable kraft paper, and rice paper, as well as multilayer LDPE coffee bags with an environmentally friendly PLA lining, all of which minimise waste and contribute to a circular economy. Our kraft paper and PLA packaging are certified by TÜV Austria as OK compost HOME and OK compost INDUSTRIAL, while our degassing valves are also compostable.
More so, we give you complete control over the design process by allowing you to build your 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.