Flexible coffee bags: Exploring the benefits over rigid packaging

Maira Kanai-Nasir
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November 17, 2023
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Over the centuries, packaging has played an essential role in protecting and storing coffee. Coffee bags have allowed coffee roasters and cafes to distribute products worldwide while ensuring they arrive at consumers with their original qualities intact. 

When coffee packaging first emerged in the 18th century, its main purpose was to get coffee from A to B. Since then, it has evolved from simple paper packages to innovative, flexible coffee bags of various shapes, sizes, and designs. 

Flexible packaging dominates today’s global packaging market. Notably, the global flexible packaging market was valued at $248.9 billion in 20222, and it is projected to reach $315.5 billion by 2027. Characterised by their non-rigidity and versatility, flexible coffee bags are often used to protect and transport both whole bean and ground coffee.

However, despite the obvious benefits of flexible packaging, some coffee businesses still opt for rigid glass or plastic packaging. 

I spoke to Nooran Al bannay, the founder of Coffee Architecture and 3rd place winner of the 2023 UAE National Barista Championships, to learn more about her thoughts on flexible coffee bags versus their rigid counterparts. 

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Understanding flexible coffee bags

Over time, the role of coffee packaging has evolved. As coffee consumers have become more knowledgeable, a focus on preserving freshness and preventing exposure to external factors has led to increasingly innovative coffee bag designs.

Beyond this, coffee bags have transformed into ‘secret salesmen’ and become a highly effective way of selling a brand and its identity to passing consumers.

Essentially, flexible coffee bags refer to packaging whose shape can be readily changed when filled or during use. This form of packaging is often made from paper, plastic, film, aluminum foil, or a combination of these. 

The most common materials used are polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP). These materials are extruded into thin sheets and then laminated together. The laminate is then formed into the desired shape and sealed. 

Flexible coffee bags are hygienic, cost-effective, and are often considered more environmentally friendly to produce and transport than rigid packaging, such as glass and tin packaging. This is especially true when coffee pouches are made from kraft paper, rice paper, or polylactic acid (PLA).

Rigid packaging, on the other hand, is less commonly used. It is defined as packaging that is the opposite of flexible: it cannot be bent, moulded, or folded without being broken or damaged. Some examples of rigid coffee packaging include shipping pallets, crates, aluminium tins, glass jars, subscription boxes, and metal cans, to name a few. 

Why are flexible coffee bags more popular than rigid ones?

One of the main reasons flexible coffee bags have become more popular than their rigid counterparts is because they are so lightweight. Flexible packaging is designed to use as little material as possible to package goods, ensuring a high packaging-to-product ratio. 

This has the dual benefit of reducing the amount of waste and keeping down carbon emissions involved in transportation. Large quantities of flexible packaging can be packed and shipped in single containers, helping to limit the number of journeys between suppliers and coffee roasters.

“Flexible packaging is incredibly easy to store,” Nooran explains. “I have another roastery called Section Coffee Roasters, where we’re able to store a huge amount of packaging in a relatively small space.”

“Additionally, as they can be folded and stacked, I’m able to have different colours, varieties, and collections of coffee bags – all with my branding!” she adds. “We have so much flexibility and don’t need to have dedicated space for our packaging.”

Beyond this, flexible coffee bags offer consumers convenience, as they can be fitted with resealable zippers and degassing valves. A degassing valve is a one-way vent that allows CO2 to escape without letting oxygen enter. Small, aesthetic, and easy to fit, it revolutionised coffee packaging and has allowed roasters to opt for multilayer pouches that prevent exposure to harmful externalities.

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What are the issues around flexible coffee bags? 

Before switching over to flexible packaging, coffee roasters should take note that studies show that this type of packaging often has low recycling rates. More often than not, flexible coffee bags comprise multiple packaging layers, each of which may require different disposal methods. 

Compared to materials such as glass and paper, the recyclable plastics used in flexible packaging may not be accepted by all councils, which means they may end up going to landfills instead. To be properly recycled, each layer must be separated, a process that many facilities do not have the equipment to carry out.

“As business owners, we need to make the right choices. I’m looking into recyclable packaging options, as we have several options for recyclable materials here in the UAE,” Nooran explains. 

To ensure flexible packaging is properly recycled, some specialty coffee roasters offer a collection programme. The idea of this is to encourage customers to return their empty pouches to the roastery, where they will then be taken to a recycling facility that can deal with them.

For instance, specialty coffee roasters can partner with companies such as TerraCycle, which provides businesses with collection boxes for empty coffee bags. Once full, these boxes can then be shipped back to TerraCycle for proper disposal. 

“TerraCycle can recycle those ‘difficult to recycle’ items because we work closely with brands, retailers, and other stakeholders who fund the recycling process,” explains Stephen Clarke, the Head of Communications at TerraCycle and Loop, Europe. TerraCycle and other waste collection programmes offer convenience in being able to throw multiple materials into one box. Furthermore, they take the responsibility of ensuring that it gets recycled.

Coffee roasters also have the option of launching their own coffee bag return programmes, much like the one implemented by Firelight Coffee Roasters. The brand’s coffee bags are fully recyclable. However, only certain facilities can process these materials, specifically low-density polyethylene (LDPE) #4 plastics. This is why it recently launched its Send Back Recycle Pack

The pack allows customers to return empty coffee bags so that Firelight can distribute them to the appropriate recycling facilities. This is a convenient solution for customers who don’t live near recycling facilities capable of processing this kind of plastic.

Flexible coffee packaging has been around for decades and has grown to become the most popular option among specialty roasters. Versatile, sturdy, and easy to customise, it both protects the coffee inside and allows roasters to showcase their brand identity. 

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of flexible packaging for specialty coffee. Our selection of biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable materials will help reduce your carbon footprint while communicating a commitment to sustainability. All our coffee pouches are fully customisable to your needs, from the colours and images to the shape and components.

Images courtesy of Nooran Al bannay and Firelight Coffee Roasters

For more information on our flexible coffee packaging, contact our team.

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