What does the future of sustainable packaging look like?

Jane Merchant
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July 4, 2023
An image of a kraft paper coffee bag, sustainable coffee packaging, sustainable coffee bags made from kraft paper, kraft paper coffee bags, compostable coffee bag in an article on future of sustainable packaging

When entering the phrase “sustainable packaging” into an online search engine, roasters will be presented with thousands of results. As demand for sustainable packaging increases among customers, businesses and government organisations have had to adjust quickly. 

Government mandates are banning certain packaging materials and customers are increasingly seeking alternatives that have minimal environmental impact. 

This demand has affected all businesses, including the specialty coffee industry. This demand has affected the specialty coffee industry in particular. Coffee packaging will also need to be responsibly and correctly disposed of for composting or recycling. 

This has resulted in considerable pressure on those in the specialty coffee industry to create, improve, or highlight their sustainability efforts. However, this can be complex and costly for the uninitiated, leading many to ask whether it’s even possible for businesses to truly operate sustainably.

So, what happens next?

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How many businesses are using sustainable packaging?

It is estimated the global sustainable packaging market will double across all sectors to over $190 billion within the next decade. This coincides with the decrease in demand for plastic packaging, which has dropped to less than 0.5%. For the most part, the world seems to have accepted that while single-use plastic packaging might be low-cost, accessible, and convenient, its environmental cost is too high.

To demonstrate a commitment to integrating sustainable options, countries worldwide have pledged to phase out plastic packaging entirely by certain dates. Over 50 countries have joined the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, which established an international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution by 2040.

Similarly, the European Union has its Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive. This requires member states to address their waste management while continuously enforcing new regulations that address packaging waste. However, despite these promises, many countries are falling behind with their pledges to decrease plastic use or improve recycling rates.

Research into the reasons for this suggests many businesses feel unprepared to make the switch. Or, they are failing to align their implementation with applicable regulations. Another issue is a lack of government support. This includes incentivising better material choices, promoting renewable energy sources, and facilitating waste reuse, recycling, and composting.

According to a recent article by consultancy group McKinsey, many businesses are feeling pressured to enforce dramatic changes with limited time to do so. A 2022 sustainability report states businesses have no time to lose meeting sustainability commitments because of increased consumer awareness and regulations. Furthermore, those that delay doing so may face struggles as investors increasingly allocate capital on the basis of sustainability and performance.

By contrast, the report states companies that achieve their sustainability commitments will drive cost efficiency and revenue growth.

An image of a recyclable coffee bag, recyclable coffee packaging made from low density polyethylene, LDPE coffee bags, LDPE coffee pakcaging, recyclable coffee packaging, in an article on future of sustainable packaging

Challenges businesses face when adopting sustainable packaging

Several businesses, including specialty coffee roasters and coffee shops, struggle with sustainable packaging adoption or to meet their sustainability goals. The reasons for this are myriad and complex. A common factor seems to be a lack of widespread testing, approval, certification, and funding of sustainable alternatives at a corporate or government level. 

Consumer miscommunication is another factor. Customers are becoming more discerning about their sustainable packaging choices. Furthermore, they are aware that packaging labelled or marketed as sustainable may not always be so.

This uncertainty stems from a lack of global sustainable packaging standards or certifications, as well as poor quality packaging substitutes, and a lack of transparency in the product process and its infrastructure. The issue is also being compounded by a poor understanding of the limitations of recycling and the cost of implementing substitutes. 

The average small roaster or coffee shop owner is likely to operate with limited budgets, resources, and time. The above factors can make sustainable packaging seem inaccessible – or that their efforts are too little to make a difference.

An image of kraft paper coffee packaging, recyclable coffee bags, compostable coffee bags, compostable coffee packaging, kraft paper coffee packaging, in an article on future of sustainable packaging

Realistic solutions to sustainable coffee packaging challenges

Much of the focus on a coffee’s carbon footprint falls on who produced the coffee, how they produced it, and how it has been processed and transported. While these factors do contribute, a coffee’s carbon footprint is affected by its packaging.

It’s important for small-scale specialty coffee roasters and cafes to understand they are unlikely to match the efforts of larger retailers. However, they can still take steps towards packaging sustainability. First, they can calculate their current packaging footprint to determine where the materials come from and where they go.

This can involve investigating if local councils have created or are planning to support a packaging recycling, reuse, or refill programme you can take part in. This will determine how sustainable your packaging really is. Benchmarking is essential to calculate if your sustainability efforts have had any impact.

Once you set realistic goals, you can become more sustainable. With sustainability becoming such a priority, it’s common to feel overwhelmed or confused about which choices to make. It’s important for roasters and cafés to recognise that sustainability is a journey, not a destination. 

If you feel like you need to revisit your packaging options, MTPak Coffee can assist. Our coffee boxes are made using recycled cardboard, while our sustainable coffee bags are made using kraft paper, rice paper, or multilayer LDPE packaging with an environmentally friendly PLA lining.

Our coffee bags and coffee boxes can be customised to reflect your brand’s characteristics, as well as providing vital information about your product. MTPak Coffee offers a wide range of customisation techniques, including spot UV with a glossy, satin, or matte finish, embossing and debossing, as well as hot foil stamping in a variety of colours. We also offer our clients a quick turnaround time of 40 hours and 24-hour shipping time in addition to low minimum order quantities (MOQs) for those looking to remain agile while showcasing a commitment to the environment.

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

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