Stickers vs. sustainability: Is there a good choice for compostable coffee bags?

Paul Clearfire
November 1, 2023
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Thanks to improved technology and heightened awareness of their obvious environmental benefits, compostable coffee bags have a growing market share. They have become a popular option for specialty coffee roasters who are concerned about sustainability. 

That said, the effort to be eco-friendly can all be for nought if coffee roasters fail to pay equal attention to the surprisingly complex issues associated with packaging stickers.

Product stickers can provide critical information about price, sell-by dates, and ingredients. But they do far more than that. Available in technicolour tones or subdued shades, stickers on coffee bags can sway sensibilities, attract attention, and leverage loyalty. 

However, can custom stickers affect the sustainability of compostable coffee packaging? And if so, what can roasters do about it? To help us peer through the murk of hype and greenwashing to get to the heart of the issue, I spoke with veteran coffee roaster, Andy Newbom, the ‘chief instigator’ at Torque Coffees.  

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Custom-printed stickers: A re-emerging trend

Those who grew up in the 60s and 70s are likely to remember the popular World Cup Soccer cards and stickers from Panini. In the US, Topps trading cards and stickers served a similar niche for fans of Major League Baseball and NFL Football. These cultural icons remain the focus of a loyal following of traders and enthusiasts. 

Similarly, many people may have had notebooks covered in countless stickers from Wacky Packs or, later, Garbage Pail Kids. And, who could forget the near-ubiquitous proliferation of Star Wars stickers in the 70s and 80s?

For many, stickers are a statement of identity. They can serve as silent anthems proclaiming allegiances and affinities. 

After fading away, the trend of offering custom-printed stickers seems to have returned. Notably, several specialty coffee brands are taking advantage of the flexibility, affordability, and dynamism of stickers, using them to enhance brand identity and loyalty across multiple marketing channels. 

Custom-printed stickers offer a convenient means for conveying information and images consistently across diverse media. They can be applied to many surfaces, from boxes and bags to bumpers and bicycles. 

Beyond this, stickers can be quite economical. Pre-printed stickers are typically available in relatively low minimum order quantities. Alternatively, specialty coffee roasters can choose to print them in-house using common consumer inkjet or thermal printers. 

This allows them to easily combine stickers with stock coffee bags and subscription boxes to create cost-effective, distinctive packaging for individual roasts. 

The low upfront cost and ease of production also make stickers easy add-ons for direct-ship orders and in-store giveaways. These ‘freebies’ often land on laptop and phone cases, car windows, notebooks, and a host of other personal advertising platforms, converting customers into promoters.

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A sticky situation: Are custom-printed stickers sustainable? 

Despite their added value, stickers can be problematic for specialty coffee roasters and consumers concerned with sustainability. After a year of committed research, Andy Newbom explains why. 

“The vast majority of coffee bag labels, and even shipping labels, are made using materials and processes that devastate the environment,” he says. “Most of the stickers are made with virgin paper and virgin plastic. Additionally, they’re often loaded with hidden plastics, petrochemicals, and other harsh chemicals, and are not themselves recyclable, compostable or reusable.”

That said, there are some more eco-friendly alternatives available. For instance:

  • Biodegradable stickers: These decompose via bacteria or other living organisms. The plant-based materials avoid plastic pollution. 
  • Compostable stickers: These comprise plant-based materials and can disintegrate into natural elements in a compost environment, leaving no toxicity in the soil. This happens in around 90 days. However, some compostable materials require industrial composting facilities and are not suitable for home composting. 
  • Recyclable stickers: These are suitable for processing that will make their materials reusable. They are often made of paper or plastic that can be recycled per local regulations.

Coffee brands seeking to provide a truly eco-friendly solution essentially have three options when considering stickers:

  1. Pair compostable packaging and stickers that share the same composting process.
  2. Use non-compostable stickers, and print instructions on the label directing the customer to remove them before composting.
  3. Instead of stickers, you can consider using stamps or pre-printed bags that employ soy-based or other compostable ink.

For those seeking a solution that is truly home-compostable, there are several considerations to keep in mind. The inks, adhesives, and the materials of the sticker itself all need to be compostable. 

To guarantee compatibility with home composting, coffee brands should find solutions that are fully biodegradable. Furthermore, they should consider the materials used for the sticker backing. While these won’t end up on the bag, they do present an additional waste stream, and thus impact the environment as much as the sticker itself.

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How to build truly compostable coffee bags

Fortunately, as Andy has learned, finding the best solutions does not need to be difficult. “There are so many great options out there now for compostable, plant-based coffee bags and custom printing,” he says.

 Torque Coffees are one of the only specialty coffee brands that have been able to reduce its packaging materials by 50%. The brand combined its retail coffee box and shipping box into one simple package.

“We analysed every single thing in a package that gets sent to a consumer. We spent a great deal of time and energy to achieve these things,” Andy adds. He explains that the entire coffee bag is plant-based and plastic-free. Additionally, the entire package, including the zipper and degassing valve is compostable. 

“The small label we use to show the coffee info is 100% recycled and 100% compostable – including the backing paper and the glue. Plus, it’s all 100% plastic-free.” The coffee boxes supplied by the brand are 100% recycled, 100% plant-based, plastic-free, and home compostable.

“We designed our packaging from the ground up specifically for e-commerce and shipping to use 100% recycled paper products,” Andy concludes. 

At MTPak Coffee, we offer specialty coffee brands a range of 100% recyclable coffee packaging options that include compostable options. Our line of coffee packaging options is made from renewable materials, such as compostable kraft paper, and rice paper, as well as multilayer LDPE coffee bags with an environmentally friendly PLA lining, all of which minimise waste and contribute to a circular economy.

Furthermore, we are able to fully customise the size, shape, look, and feel of your labels and stickers to suit your specific business needs. Plus, we are able to custom-print coffee packaging using innovative digital printing technology, with a quick turnaround time of 40 hours and 24-hour shipping time. 

Article body images courtesy of Torque Coffees.  

For more information on customising compostable coffee packaging, contact our team

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