Like many market segments related to traditional packaging, product labelling is evolving. Experts believe the demand for sustainable packaging materials has driven this transformation, as consumers expect product labels to form part of a circular economy.
To keep up with this demand, labelling technology has become more data-driven and automated. For instance, cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI), as well as augmented and virtual reality, are offering brands innovative alternatives to traditional print labels.
Beyond this, unlabelled packaging has entered the market. As some print labels can contain toxic materials and adhesives, many businesses are moving away from them. Instead, brands have implemented the use of quick response (QR) codes or web addresses that allow consumers to trace the packaging from production to purchase.
This option may suit small to medium roasters that require smaller print runs with improved lead, delivery, and turnaround times. It also offers improved print accuracy, reduced material waste, and lower costs. But, is unlabelled coffee packaging a trend that will catch on?
Why would brands move away from packaging labels?
Packaging labels can provide consumers with essential information. For instance, coffee product labels typically include origin information and roast dates. For many coffee drinkers, most of the concern falls on how the packaging impacts the environment.
Several studies show customers are often confused by packaging recycling symbols or don’t understand what they mean in the first place. Some brands have taken advantage of this, with many making false claims, or even greenwashing.
This issue is compounded by the fact that packaging and labels often have contradictory or conflicting requirements for disposal. While labels make up a relatively small percentage of product packaging, they adhere to the primary packaging. For either element to be disposed of or recycled properly, it must have contaminants removed. A failure to follow these protocols could mean both materials are rendered useless and must be incinerated.
Several factors can affect whether a label is recyclable:
- Film type
- Material type
- Adhesives used
- Coverage of label
- Customisation techniques, such as metallisation
It is important to note many governments are putting laws in place to ensure labels regarding recycling or compostability are easily and readily identifiable. Furthermore, these laws ensure labels use specific logos and wording in an effort to avoid greenwashing and reduce consumer confusion.
As a result, many brands are forgoing traditional labelling and shifting towards direct-to-package printing on flexible packaging – something we’re increasingly seeing in the specialty coffee sector.
Why choose unlabelled coffee packaging?
Today, more and more brands are under pressure to remove labels to reduce the environmental footprint of their products. For example, the South Korean government has introduced legislation to phase out external product labels by 2026. Preventing customers from separating packaging and labels could reduce waste by 24.6 million tonnes annually.
While similar laws are yet to be adopted globally, they may be in the future. And surprisingly, switching to unlabelled coffee packaging could also help businesses save money. For example, in the UK, the government taxes single-use plastic packaging.
For instance, the UK government taxes single-use plastic packaging. Only plastic packaging products which are less than 30% recycled are subject to the tax. Therefore, a container comprised of 35% recycled plastic is tax-free. If a business would otherwise use plastic labels, they would lower the amount of tax they paid by switching to unlabelled coffee packaging.
So, should coffee roasters go label-free?
While it has its benefits, there are some pitfalls. Notably, a few roasters with unlabelled packaging will stand out from competitors. However, when multiple brands do the same, it will result in dozens of almost indistinguishable products.
Beyond this, unlabelled packaging can appear cheap and low in value. As specialty coffee differentiates itself based on quality (communicated through origin and processing information, cup score data, and tasting notes), this could pose a problem for brands with little to no established market presence.
Additionally, roasters using unlabelled packaging must use high-quality printing and eco-friendly inks. This means that customised printing will not affect the recyclability of the packaging. The packaging will need to convey simple information on its disposal and verifiable details of where it will end up afterwards.
Flexible coffee packaging: A sustainable alternative
It is important to note that unlabelled coffee bags may not be suitable for small to medium coffee brands. However, this does not mean they are forced to use unsustainable options. There are several coffee packaging options that are both cost-effective and environmentally friendly.
To keep packaging costs low, roasters can invest in uniform coffee bags of the same shape and colour, in a variety of sizes. Then, these bags can be customised according to origin or roast using belly band sleeves. Sleeves for coffee bags are affordable and easy to customise with branding and product information. They can also be designed to accommodate limited edition or rare coffee blends.
Another option is eco-friendly customised stickers. Similar to labels, roasters can customise these to educate customers on how to recycle their empty coffee bags. When choosing this option, roasters should partner with suppliers that use digital printing and make use of water-based inks that are low in volatile organic compounds.
At MTPak Coffee, we understand how important it is to ensure a quality product with packaging that has little to no affect on the environment. We can help you design and produce customised packaging in a range of shapes and sizes with glossy, satin, or matte finishes, for instance. Furthermore, we can emboss, deboss, or hot foil stamp your packaging.
Our custom-printed stickers can also be fully customised to your desired shape, size, and colours. As for our sustainable coffee packaging options, they are available in materials such as recycled cardboard, kraft paper, rice paper, or multilayer LDPE packaging with a PLA lining.