Sustainable coffee packaging: Roasters share the benefits

Tori Taylor
September 4, 2023
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Packaging accounts for around 3% of the coffee supply chain’s total carbon footprint. If plastic packaging isn’t properly sourced, produced, transported, and discarded, it can be detrimental to the environment. Therefore, several brands are placing a stronger focus on sustainable coffee packaging. 

Essentially, sustainable coffee packaging refers to any type of packaging that reduces the carbon footprint and environmental impact of a business.

According to the World Packaging Organization (WPO), sustainable packaging must meet the functional and economic needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This includes the whole supply chain, from basic function and marketing to end-of-life and reuse.

The demand for eco-friendly materials continues to grow, as studies show around 82% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging. 

To learn more about the benefits of investing in sustainable coffee packaging, we spoke to several roasters within the specialty sector.

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Why is sustainable coffee packaging essential?

For nearly 100 years, plastic has played a crucial role in packaging products. Cheap, versatile, and hygienic, it is often used for everything from ready-made meals to medical supplies. 

Traditional plastic coffee packaging has long been favoured by coffee roasters thanks to its strength, durability, and effectiveness at preserving freshness. However, in recent years, businesses have come under increasing pressure to abandon plastic in favour of more sustainable alternatives. 

This is because recent studies show packaging accounts for around 3% of the coffee supply chain’s total carbon footprint. If plastic packaging isn’t properly sourced, produced, transported, and discarded, it can be detrimental to the environment. 

Traditional plastic packaging can take up to 1,000 to degrade naturally. While it degrades, it often ends up polluting landfills, oceans, and local waterways. Plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental issues society faces today.

For instance, plastic waste has become a common issue in Nigeria, prompting the government to intervene in recent years. Single-use items and polythene bags, also known as ‘nylon’ bags in Nigeria, are the most common plastic waste found in both cities and rural areas. Studies also show that traces of microplastics have been found in local crops and food sources. 

“Research indicates the presence of microplastics in foods, such as the popular ewedu (jute) leaves used to make a Nigerian soup,” explains Richard Ali, the owner and founder of Tigray Coffee Co. in Abuja, Nigeria. “Non-biodegradable, single-use plastics present a major threat to the environment and public health in Nigeria.”

This is why Tigray Coffee Co. has adopted biodegradable plastic alternatives. The brand has invested in high-barrier kraft paper ziplock bags for its coffee packaging, as it is both multi-use and biodegradable. 

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Understanding the benefits of sustainable coffee packaging

Put simply, sustainable coffee packaging is any type of packaging that reduces the environmental impact of a business. This can be done by using 100% recycled or raw materials to create packaging materials, thereby minimising the production process, supply chain and carbon footprint. 

Additionally, it helps to create a circular economy around the packaging, extending its life cycle and usability. For specialty coffee roasters, this means adopting packaging made from renewable resources, such as kraft paper, and/or using recyclable or compostable materials, like low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and polylactic acid (PLA)

“At first, we switched our smaller coffee bags to fully recyclable packaging,” explains Clara Malmros Mitromaras, the sales manager at Decadent Decaf Coffee Co. in the UK. “While it was a hefty investment for the company, we’ve recently switched our larger coffee bags, so now all our packaging is made from recyclable materials.”

Karl Fisher, the owner and head roaster at Alabaster Coffee Roaster & Tea Co. in the US explains the brand switched to coffee packaging that was appropriate for single-stream recycling, as it is popular within the region. 

Beyond this, the brand only prints labels in demand to limit waste. Additionally, Alabaster Coffee Roaster & Tea Co. changed its RTD cold brew coffee packaging from class bottles to infinitely recyclable aluminium cans

“All the takeout packaging for our cafe is also appropriate for single-stream recycling, and we offer in-store recycling receptacles, making it easier for consumers,” he adds.

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How can roasters ensure packaging integrity?

With fully sustainable coffee packaging, specialty roasters can showcase their commitment to the environment as well as reduce their carbon footprint. That said, quality coffee packaging should protect the beans contained within for at least 12 months, even though coffee should preferably be consumed long before that. 

As coffee beans are porous, they absorb moisture quickly. Therefore, roasted coffee should be stored in a cool, dry place. If the beans absorb moisture, the quality of the cup will suffer as a result. Additionally, coffee beans should be packaged in airtight bags that protect them from sunlight. 

Packaging should also be strong and abrasion-resistant. So, how can roasters ensure their packaging meets all these conditions while being as sustainable as possible?

Multilayer coffee packaging is more effective at protecting coffee beans than single-layer structures. As one layer is usually unable to provide the necessary strength, flexible packaging tends to have a minimum of two layers. 

However, when choosing multilayer coffee packaging, it’s important to make sure that all components are fully biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable. This applies not only to the packaging layers but also inks and labels. 

At MTPak Coffee, we offer flexible coffee packaging with one layer of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and one of ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) that functions as a barrier against oxygen. 

Additionally, most of our biodegradable and compostable pouches meet European the certification standard (EN 13432) issued by Din Certco, while our LDPE packaging is 100% recyclable. Our paper-based packaging carries the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo.

Choose to include additional recyclable components to your coffee packaging, such as degassing valves and resealable zippers, to help preserve freshness. 

Images by: Tigray Coffee Co., Decadent Decaf Coffee Co. & Coffee Roaster & Tea Co.

For more information on sustainable coffee packaging for your business, contact our team. 

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