Breaking down the benefits of biodegradable coffee packaging

Tori Taylor
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November 3, 2023
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Sustainability is a hot topic in both the specialty coffee and packaging industries. Notably, the UN predicted that if consumption and waste management don’t change, the world will be home to some 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste by 2050.

Coffee businesses worldwide have been focusing on creating a more sustainable, circular economy. They’ve done this by replacing single-use plastics with “greener” solutions, such as compostable, recyclable, or biodegradable coffee packaging. 

However, questions remain over which is the most sustainable form of packaging: compostable, recyclable, or biodegradable coffee bags. Many believe it boils down to where the business is located, and what disposal facilities are available. 

To learn more about how biodegradable coffee packaging benefits a business, I spoke to several specialty coffee roasters who have invested in it. 

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Understanding biodegradable packaging materials

Confusion over terms such as bioplastic, biodegradable, and compostable can make it difficult for coffee roasters to make the right choice when it comes to packaging. 

Essentially, biodegradation refers to the process by which microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, break down solid waste. To qualify as biodegradable, the solid waste must cause no pollution to its surrounding environment once it has biodegraded, and full biodegradation must occur within a year. 

For biodegradation to take place, there needs to be a balance of microorganisms, heat, oxygen, moisture, and sunlight. When any one of these variables changes, so does the speed at which waste biodegrades, regardless of whether it is at an industrial plant or at home. 

In a typical industrial facility, each variable is controlled to ensure that large amounts of waste are dealt with as quickly as possible. 

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. Notably, the biodegradable packaging market has proliferated over the past few years and is estimated to reach $809.9 billion by 2032. 

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Common biodegradable materials for coffee bags

Biodegradable packaging materials are made from a range of different sources, from pulp to cornstarch. One of the most popular biodegradable materials for coffee bags is kraft paper.

Kraft paper is made using the ‘kraft process’, which involves the chemical conversion of wood into wood pulp. Once the lignin and cellulose fibres of the wood are separated, the cellulose pulp is strained and formed into kraft paper. 

While it is strong and environmentally friendly, it is not as effective at preserving freshness as other materials. Hence, it tends to be favoured by specialty coffee roasters who distribute their coffee to consumers in smaller batches. 

Biodegradable plastics, or bioplastics, are also a popular packaging material. They have been offered as an eco-friendly alternative to conventional plastics since the 1980s. Polylactic acid (PLA) is one of the most common bioplastics found in coffee packaging, where it is recognised for being flexible and for having a long shelf life. It is made from starches derived from corn sugar, potatoes, and sugar cane.

Bioplastics must be rigorously tested at different temperature and humidity levels in industrial settings to be certified as biodegradable.” The European EN 13432 standards on biodegradable plastics state that bioplastics must biodegrade by 10% of their initial weight within 12 weeks in a controlled facility, and by 90% in no longer than 6 months.

For roasters based in Europe, this means there is no ambiguity about the quality of their packaging when it is certified biodegradable.

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Why invest in biodegradable coffee bags? 

In Nigeria, single-use plastic and polythene bags, also known as ‘nylon’ bags, are the most common plastic waste found in both the cities and rural areas. “Non-biodegradable, single-use plastics present a major threat to the environment and public health in Nigeria,” explains Richard Ali, the CEO of Tigray Coffee Co

This is why Tigray Coffee Co. has adopted biodegradable plastic alternatives. The brand uses high-barrier kraft paper ziplock bags for its coffee packaging, as it is both multi-use and biodegradable. In doing so, it is helping to educate local consumers about plastic waste pollution and the long-term effects it can have on their health and the development of the country.

“Our promise as a micro-roaster is to reduce waste,” says Rhyan McCoy, the founder of Hampton Roast Coffee in Northern Ireland. In July 2023, he made the transition to biodegradable coffee bags for the brand’s 250g offerings. “We currently use kraft paper stand-up coffee pouches, and will be replacing our 500g and 1kg bags over the same.”

Allen Cox, the CEO of Belfast Coffee Roasters, explains that the brand’s packaging is both biodegradable and compostable. “No just in an industrial composter, but in your home compost. And our coffee bags comply with the European certification standard (EN 13432),” he says. 

One of the most effective ways to dispose of biodegradable coffee bags is to send them to an industrial or commercial facility where they’ll break down with the right mixture of heat, microbes, and time. 

In an industrial facility, controlled conditions mean that temperatures are around 60°C (140°F), compared to around 35°C (95°F) in a home composting bin. As microorganisms multiply faster when temperatures are high, waste sent to an industrial facility will break down far quicker than anywhere else.

Another point to consider when disposing of biodegradable packaging is oxygen. For example, PLA is designed to biodegrade in conditions where there is plenty of oxygen and the air can circulate. Most landfills have anaerobic conditions as they are left undisturbed, meaning that oxygen cannot reach the lower levels of waste. 

If PLA is left in an anaerobic environment, it will not biodegrade. Therefore, sending it to an industrial facility ensures it receives the correct amount of oxygen to successfully decompose.

Provided they are kept in the right conditions, plant-based materials, such as rice paper or polylactic acid (PLA), will break down into gases, water, and other natural compounds in no longer than 90 days.

Biodegradable coffee packaging is a great option for specialty coffee roasters who are looking to reduce the environmental impact of their products and want to communicate their commitment to sustainability to customers.

At MTPak Coffee, we understand the importance of looking after not only the world’s forests but the entire planet for future generations. As such, we can guarantee that all our paper-based coffee packaging, including our kraft paper bags, are from forests that have been certified by the FSC.

Furthermore, 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.

MTPak Coffee’s biodegradable coffee packaging is certified by Din Certco in compliance with the European certification standard (EN 13432). It also carries the Seedling logo. Our biodegradable coffee bags are made from the following:

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

Article body images courtesy of Tigray Coffee Co. and Belfast Coffee Roasters

For more information on biodegradable coffee packaging, contact our team

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