Is custom coffee packaging recyclable?

Hayley Osbourne
July 20, 2023
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New research by ING Bank reveals the amount of packaging waste will soon outstrip population growth. Notably, the volume of materials used for consumer goods in the US and Europe is growing by 1.5% annually. Countries such as Aia, Africa, and Latin America are also expected to exceed previous growth volumes.

Furthermore, plastics alone are predicted to account for one-third of all packaging waste by 2040. A result of the growing plastic waste crisis has seen an increased demand for sustainable alternatives.

Recent research shows the demand for eco-friendly packaging has increased to 81%. The same study found 66% of consumers say it is important that packaging materials are recyclable. Businesses have responded to this demand, particularly the specialty coffee industry.

These days, coffee bags made from compostable, biodegradable, and recyclable materials is a common sight. The majority of these have been customised with unique finishes or designs in order to stand out and entice customers.

But how do these customisation techniques affect packaging materials? And is custom coffee packaging recyclable? 

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Understanding “recyclable” packaging

In order for something to qualify as “recyclable” the material must be capable of being used again – either for the same purpose or for a new product. The aim is to reduce the consumption of raw materials, thereby reducing energy usage, air pollution, and water pollution. It also offers a sustainable solution to regular waste streams by lowering input into municipal landfills.

Recyclable materials include glass, metal, card, paper, corrugated cardboard, and more recently, certain plastics known as bioplastics. The term ‘bioplastic’ covers a broad spectrum of materials. It can refer to materials that are at least partially made from natural and non-fossil components and are biodegradable.

There are many types of bioplastic available, such as the versatile packaging material, polylactic acid (PLA) was first introduced in 2001. It is made by fermenting carbohydrates from renewable sources such as maize, cornflour and sugar cane. PLA has since become a widely used and successful packaging material thanks to its versatility, low production costs, and environmental credentials.

However, it is not always clear when a material is recyclable. It’s difficult to decipher recycling symbols on plastic packaging and determine which materials can be recycled at local facilities. A recent study found 55% of customers admitted to being confused over which materials are recyclable. More so, over half of the participants said it’s easier to throw the packaging in the bin instead of trying to figure out if it could be recycled.

In Europe, many customers admit to being unsure of whether materials must be separated before disposal. Additionally, they were not sure if these materials have to be cleaned before recycling.

Overall, a lack of clear disposal information seems to be at the root of the recycling problem. 

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Customising recyclable coffee bags to ensure sustainability

Roasters can help ensure their coffee bags are recyclable by being transparent about the materials used. For example, the following packaging materials are fully recyclable.

  • Kraft paper
  • Corrugated cardboard
  • Rice paper
  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic
  • Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic
  • Polylactic acid (PLA) plastic
  • Bamboo paper 
  • Wood pulp

Roasters using any of the above materials can inform end-users the packaging is fully recyclable by printing directly on the bag. Using sustainable inks that are low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can also help ensure the recyclability of coffee packaging.

Low-VOC printing is an effective option for roasters looking to cut down on the emission of VOCs produced in the manufacture of packaging. Water-based, soy-based, or vegetable-based solvents are all low in VOC, and work particularly well on paper substrates. 

They are better for air quality, pose less of a risk to workers, and have a significantly lower impact overall on the environment when compared to traditional inks. Unlike plastisol inks, which contain plastics or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), low-VOC inks are fully biodegradable.

Additionally, because low-VOC inks are made from organic substances, they break down completely when disposed of correctly, without releasing any harmful toxins into the environment. Inks are not typically included in compostability tests as they generally form a relatively small percentage of the material used for packaging. However, despite this, some ink suppliers have ensured that their inks meet OK Compost HOME standards.

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How to ensure coffee bags are recycled

Disposing of recyclable products incorrectly can have a negative impact on the environment, and make its recyclable qualities redundant. Therefore, it’s important to make sure specialty coffee roasters and consumers know how their packaging can be recycled.

Importantly, recycling requirements will be specific to regions within different countries. This means consumers must check their local waste disposal guidelines before throwing away any coffee bags. 

One of the most important factors to consider when disposing of recyclable coffee packaging is to ensure that it’s clean and free from contaminants. In the US, one in four waste packages cannot be recycled because they contain contaminants, such as food debris, for instance. Roasters should encourage consumers to remove any residual chaff or small, broken coffee beans to make sure the packaging is fully recyclable.

Roasters can also include information for consumers on how best to dispose of their empty pouches by customising packaging or labels, or providing QR codes that can scan with their phones to learn more.

Packaging is essential for keeping coffee safe in its journey from roastery to cup. It allows for safe transport, preserves flavours and aromas, prolongs shelf life, and, if processed correctly, reduces waste. There’s no doubt that researchers and packaging manufacturers will keep improving solutions with the aim of offering 100% sustainable coffee bags. 

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of fully recyclable coffee bags with one layer of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and one of ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH). These function as a barrier to oxygen, while being completely sustainable. 

Our recyclable coffee packaging uses just two layers, compared to the three or four in many coffee bags around the world. This means we use less energy during manufacturing while making the packaging easier for roasters and consumers alike to dispose of sustainably.

For more information on 100% recyclable coffee packaging, contact our team.

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