Are biodegradable coffee bags meeting the demands of consumers?

Holly Szakal
November 17, 2023
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Unless consumption and waste management habits undergo rapid change, the planet could accumulate almost 12 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste by 2050. This is according to a report by the United Nations (UN). Therefore, it’s unsurprising that environmental concerns around packaging such as coffee bags have taken centre stage in the minds of consumers.

The specialty coffee industry is no stranger to modern consumer expectations. Notably, the sector has rapidly evolved with several new sustainability efforts, such as opting for eco-friendly materials in-store and beyond. Throughout this shift, the industry has become abuzz with discussions centring on the adoption of biodegradable coffee bags.

However, confusion over terms such as ‘bioplastic’, ‘biodegradable’, and ‘compostable’ can present challenges for both consumers and coffee roasters. 

To learn more about whether biodegradable coffee bags are meeting the expectations of both consumers and coffee roasters, I spoke with John Wilt, the owner of Maiden Coffee Roasters in New Jersey.

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The popularity of biodegradable packaging

A recent analysis of the coffee packaging market shows it is expected to see significant growth within the next five years. Alongside this growth, packaging manufacturers are focused on providing sustainable, eco-friendly materials and products that adhere to sound recycling initiatives.

Biodegradable packaging has become a popular option among coffee roasters because of its sustainability, affordability, and overall durability. However, its benefits extend beyond mere sustainability. 

John explains why, in addition to eco-friendliness, he thinks biodegradable coffee bags have become the go-to choice of packaging for several coffee roasters. 

“Biodegradable packaging is definitely becoming more popular in the coffee industry as time goes on,” he says. “This is, in part, because consumers are becoming more involved in what they are ingesting and how it affects their bodies. Materials in plastic packaging often break down into microplastics.”

Defined as fragments of any type of plastic less than 5mm in length, concerns around the impact of microplastics on the planet have heightened in recent years. It’s estimated that more than 42,000 tonnes of these small fragments are deposited into the environment each year, causing problems for wildlife and ecosystems around the world.

According to the Marine Conservation Society, there are two types of microplastics: primary and secondary.

Primary microplastics are small fragments of plastic that have been purposefully manufactured, such as microfibers from clothes and beads from personal care products. Secondary microplastics, on the other hand, are derived from larger plastic items that have broken into smaller pieces over time. They are usually identifiable by their irregular shape. 

Primary microplastics first appeared in products around fifty years ago as natural ingredients were replaced with polyethylene plastic. As recently as 2012, these microbeads, or pellets, were considered harmless and were often included in products like facial scrubs or toothpaste. However, in 2015, former US president Barack Obama banned the use of microbeads in US beauty products after studies revealed how they could negatively affect wildlife through ingestion.

Fish and shellfish are particularly susceptible to ingestion of microplastics in the ocean, which can then be passed onto humans via consumption. It’s estimated that an average European seafood consumer ingests around 11,000 plastic particles a year, both from primary and secondary microplastics.

The small size and ubiquitousness of microplastics make it easy for them to enter the food chain via ingestion. Scientists have found microplastics in the digestive systems of hundreds of aquatic species, many of which are consumed by humans. While there is a lack of research into the long-term impact on humans, it’s thought that microplastics can block digestive tracts, diminish the urge to eat, and alter feeding behaviour in marine wildlife, all of which reduce growth and reproductive output.

“Modern consumers are taking a deeper look into their eating habits and how hormone disruptors, such as microplastics, affect their overall wellbeing,” John explains. “In my experience within the specialty coffee industry, trends that start here are usually the canary in the coal mine for what’s to follow in the general sector of news.”

It’s clear biodegradable packaging has many benefits. However, one question that continues to come up throughout the coffee industry is whether they size up to their compostable counterparts.

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Biodegradable coffee bags versus compostable

The term biodegradation refers to the process whereby microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, break down solid waste. To be truly classified as biodegradable, the waste must not pollute its environment once it has undergone this process, which must run its full cycle within a year of disposition.

Achieving this full biodegradation cycle requires a careful balance of microorganisms, heat, oxygen, moisture, and sunlight. Any alteration in these variables, whether in an industrial plant or at home, affects the speed at which waste can biodegrade.

While all compostable products are biodegradable, not all biodegradable products are compostable. The key distinction lies in the fact that compostable products undergo rigorous testing to guarantee their decomposition within a specified timeframe. Beyond this, they break down without releasing harmful substances into the surrounding environment.

The correct method for disposing of biodegradable coffee bags is to transport them to an industrial or commercial facility suited to the needs of their degradation process. In essence, biodegradable packaging needs an environment where it can decompose through the appropriate combination of all the needed elements.

The rise of quick response (QR) codes has allowed coffee roasters to share disposal information with consumers without overwhelming the design of their coffee bags. 

Instead of printing detailed narratives on packaging, coffee roasters can integrate QR codes that provide consumers with access to the correct recycling procedures for their biodegradable bags. 

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Are biodegradable coffee bags meeting the demands of consumers?

In recent years, growing demand from consumers for eco-friendly products has made biodegradable packaging more of a necessity than a choice for specialty coffee roasters. 

According to a sustainability briefing by solar panel manufacturer SolarCity’s sustainability briefing, 75% of consumers are more likely to buy a product or service if the company is making a concerted effort to be sustainable.

By switching to biodegradable materials for your packaging, whether it’s kraft paper, rice paper or PLA, you are, in effect, showcasing your commitment to environmental sustainability to your consumers. It also demonstrates an ability to keep abreast of new trends, giving people confidence and trust in the quality of your product.

Yet the decision to opt for biodegradable coffee packaging isn’t only about sales – it is paramount to the long term wellbeing of the planet too.

Since plastic was first mass-produced in the 1950s, 4.9 billion tonnes out of the total 6.3 billion has been sent to landfill. This is a remarkable statistic that indicates the desperate need for sustainable alternatives. 

MTPak Coffee’s biodegradable packaging goes a long way to providing a solution to this pressing issue. And, with 53% of European consumers stating that they are concerned about the current level of plastic waste, it should have widespread appeal to your customers.

Our biodegradable coffee bags are certified by Din Certco in complete compliance with the European certification standard (EN 13432). Our packaging also proudly carries the Seedling logo, a registered trademark owned by European Bioplastics. This logo communicates that a product is certified industrially compostable by their standards.

Our biodegradable coffee bags are made from the following sustainable materials:

  • Kraft paper
  • Polylactic acid (PLA)
  • Rice paper

We guarantee that all our paper-based coffee packaging, including our kraft paper-spun bags, is sourced from forests that have been certified by the FSC.

Images courtesy of Maiden Coffee Roasters

For more information on biodegradable coffee bags, contact our team. 

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