Are foil-lined coffee bags recyclable?

Maira Kanai-Nasir
November 9, 2023
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The benefits of sustainable packaging materials are obvious: they reduce carbon emissions, improve customer satisfaction, and contribute to a circular economy. However, one of the concerns around compostable, recyclable, and biodegradable coffee bags is freshness.

In most cases, the solution is an interior lining. Lining coffee bags helps to reinforce sustainable materials and create an additional barrier against external factors that can affect the quality of the product.

One of the most common ways for specialty coffee roasters to preserve their coffee’s quality is by storing it in foil-lined coffee bags. That said, this option may suit some roasters more than others due to the costs and environmental impact.

To take a deeper look into the sustainability of foil-lined coffee bags, I spoke with Mike McKim, CEO and founder of Cuvée Coffee.

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A history of foil-lined coffee packaging

Aluminium foil was first used in commercial candy wrappers across the US in 1913. Traditionally, aluminium foil is manufactured by casting slabs from molten aluminium. This process involves rolling the aluminium until it reaches the desired thickness. It can be made into individual rolls of foil that vary in thickness, from 4 to 150 micrometres. 

Today, aluminium foil is often used to produce rigid, semi-rigid, and flexible packaging. Foils have become a popular material for lining bags of ground or whole-bean coffee. Typically, it is processed into a very thin metal sheet and adhered to an outer packaging layer that is usually made of plastic, paper, or bioplastics, such as polylactic acid.

The inner layer acts as a barrier, while the outer layer allows for customisation, such as printing the details of the coffee within. Beyond this, aluminium foil protects against light and moisture, is food-safe, lightweight, and will not corrode easily.

Another benefit to aluminium foil is that it can be manufactured to any dimensions, as the thickness, length and width can all be adjusted. This flexibility allows specialty coffee roasters to fully customise their packaging to their needs. 

“Properly selecting packaging materials ensures coffee remains fresh and flavourful for the shelf-life of the product,” Mike explains. “Brand identity is another key factor when it comes to the importance of good design and packaging. 

“Packaging is often the first interaction a consumer has with a coffee brand. It plays a pivotal role in conveying brand identity, values, and quality. When consumers are met with endless coffee options at the grocery store, packaging that is well-designed, well-structured, sustainable, and cohesive is what turns a prospect into a customer. The product itself is then what keeps them coming back,” he adds. 

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Are foil-lined coffee bags recyclable?

“Foil-lined coffee bags have traditionally been recognised as the industry standard for preserving quality,” Mike explains. “They have a strong barrier that prevents oxygen, moisture, and UV light from degrading coffee quality.”

That said, foil-lined coffee bags often come with certain conditions. As aluminium is mined, it is considered a finite resource that will eventually run out, making it costlier to use. 

More so, aluminium foil may sometimes lose its form or develop microscopic punctures if folded or creased. As foil can be impervious to airflow, using it to package coffee will also require a degassing valve to be fitted to the bag.

While foil is a valuable material for lining coffee bags, it has pitfalls that have made roasters seek alternatives. Many specialty coffee roasters choose to use a polyethylene (PE) outer layer and a metallised polyethylene terephthalate (PET) inner layer. However, these materials are often bonded together with an adhesive, which makes them inseparable. 

Currently, aluminium used in this way is unable to be recycled or recovered, so it often ends up being incinerated. 

“While the foil barrier itself can be recycled, the external layers of packaging that allow for sealing, printing, and customisations make this barrier nearly impossible to dispose of sustainably,” Mike highlights. 

Therefore, used coffee bags will have to be taken to a specialised recycling facility with the equipment to separate the materials. However, customers are not always aware of these special requirements, which results in the aluminium foil-lined coffee bags being disposed of incorrectly. Instead of going to a recycling facility, they end up going to landfills where they break down and emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

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What to consider before investing in foil-lined coffee bags

“We see greenwashing happen all the time in this industry,” Mike says. “It’s confusing for consumers and the brand, and to be frank, quite unfair. Saying a material is compostable when the valves are not, or stating a product is 60% biodegradable doesn’t help the planet in the end. 

“It’s our responsibility as business owners in the consumer packaged goods space to set the standard for what is right. Beyond this, we need to be honest, transparent, and keep the environment in mind.”

Several roasteries, including Cuvée Coffee, are shifting away from foil-lined bags to those made from single materials. 

“The primary motivation for choosing mono-material packaging is to make recycling easier and more effective for consumers,” Mike explains. “This simplifies the recycling process while minimising waste and promoting sustainability.”

“As we were looking into ways to become more sustainable, making the switch to mono-material was the obvious choice. It not only resonates with environmentally-conscious consumers but also reduces our environmental footprint. Customers are encouraged to check with local recycling facilities for specific guidelines and drop-off locations, but we’re currently exploring offering drop-offs at our retail locations in addition to the move to recyclable materials,” he adds. 

Mike highlights that coffee is an industry that has a responsibility to become more sustainable, not only regarding sourcing but also packaging and the way businesses operate.  

“At Cuvee Coffee, we strive to be environmentally conscious and make every effort to offer the most sustainable solutions for our customers and our planet. We’ve been hesitant in the past to try out other sustainable options because of the impact they have on shelf life, quality, or any confusion it may give the consumer,” Mike says. 

“We believe in recyclability because of how easy it is for the consumer to understand and the ability it has to preserve the quality of our products. We want Cuvee Coffee to be known for our excellent coffee and all the extra efforts we make in inclusivity, diversity, and sustainability.”

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of 100% recyclable coffee packaging options made from renewable materials such as kraft paper, rice paper, or multilayer LDPE packaging with an environmentally friendly PLA lining, all of which minimise waste and contribute to a circular economy.

MTPak Coffee also offers low minimum order quantities (MOQs) to micro-roasters who are looking to remain agile while showcasing brand identity and a commitment to the environment.

Images courtesy of Cuvée Coffee.

For more information on sustainable, custom-printed coffee packaging, contact our team.

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