The pros and cons of recyclable coffee packaging

Tori Taylor
November 3, 2023
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As more consumers become environmentally conscious, businesses are under pressure to adopt sustainable practices and packaging materials. One way specialty coffee roasters have done this is by switching to recyclable coffee packaging. 

That said, using recyclable coffee bags may not be enough to stand out in an increasingly competitive market. To turn recyclable coffee bags into a brand advantage, specialty coffee roasters must ensure they are customised and disposed of correctly. 

Packaging accounts for around 3% of the coffee supply chain’s total carbon footprint. If plastic packaging isn’t properly sourced, produced, transported, and discarded, it can be detrimental to the environment. To be truly “green”, packaging must do more than simply be recyclable or reusable – its entire life needs to be sustainable.

To learn more about the pros and cons of recyclable coffee packaging, I spoke with several specialty coffee roasters who have invested in it. 

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Understanding the definition of ‘recyclable’

The concept of converting waste into reusable materials has existed for centuries. However, rising energy costs and concerns over increasing waste in the late 1970s highlighted the importance of recycling and brought it to international attention. 

For something to qualify as ‘recyclable’, the material must be capable of being used again, either for the same purpose or for a new product. Recycling aims to reduce the consumption of raw materials, thereby reducing energy usage, air pollution, and water pollution. Beyond this, it offers a sustainable solution to regular waste streams by lowering input into municipal landfills.

Consumers can determine whether something is recyclable by searching for the universal recycling symbol: a triangle made up of three arrows looping back on themselves in a clockwise direction. 

This symbol indicates that a product can be recycled, however, it does not denote whether it has been produced from recycled materials. Occasionally, the symbol will feature a percentage in the middle, which signifies how much of the product is derived from recycled materials. 

Certifications are a highly effective way to inform consumers their coffee bags are recyclable. For instance, the ‘Mobius loop’ indicates the packaging is recyclable, while the ‘Green Dot’ signifies to the consumer that the roaster has made a financial contribution towards recycling efforts. 

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Why do specialty coffee roasters choose recyclable coffee bags?

Jo Thompson, the founder of Triple Co Roast, shares why his brand decided to invest in recyclable coffee bags. “We chose coffee bags made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE) number 4 as we saw an increased demand in our city Bristol for a recyclable solution.” 

He explains that previously, Triple Co Roast used packaging made from polyethylene (PE). “They were effective but ultimately not recyclable,” He says. “We’ve noticed that using LDPE4 coffee bags has helped with our branding and sales as we can show customers that we care about our environment.” 

LDPE is a thermoplastic characterised by its properties as a thin, lightweight, and flexible material that can withstand temperatures of up to 80°C. Although it has a lower tensile strength than high-density polyethylene (HDPE), it is more resilient, making it a useful material for packaging items that require flexibility.

What sets LDPE apart from traditional plastics is the ease and affordability with which it can be reused and recycled. Unlike polylactic acid (PLA) or kraft paper, LDPE takes roughly the same time to decompose as traditional plastics. Nevertheless, the absence of toxins when recycled makes it an eco-friendly alternative.

Clara Malmros Mitromaras, the sales manager at Decadent Decaf Coffee Co. in the UK says the brand uses coffee bags made from polyethylene (PE) number 4. “All of our packaging is now made from recyclable materials. We chose to use this material as it is easy to recycle in our areas, and it is an effective, airtight material that keeps the coffee from going stale.” 

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Recyclable coffee bags: What to consider before investing

Deciding which type of eco-friendly packaging is best for your business boils down to two things: your needs and the waste management capabilities you have available. If the facility you would use to process a certain material is far away, for example, the long transport time will cause your carbon footprint to increase. In this case, it might be better to choose materials which can be safely processed in your area.

A fully recyclable coffee pouch can be a great way of minimising your environmental impact. Alternatively, you can look for coffee bags that combine both biodegradable and recyclable materials. However, in this case, you should always make sure that the individual materials can be separated.

Furthermore, no matter which sustainable packaging option you choose, make sure you communicate it to your customers. It’s important that your business is perceived as sustainable. Tell your customers what to do with the empty coffee bag and offer them solutions. 

Packaging is essential for keeping your coffee safe in its journey from roastery to cup. It allows for safe transport, preserves flavours and aromas, prolongs shelf life, and, if processed correctly, reduces waste. There’s no doubt that researchers and packaging manufacturers will keep improving solutions with the aim of offering 100% sustainable coffee bags.

Overall, it is essential to consult with local waste management facilities and make sure you tell your customers how to correctly dispose of your coffee bags. By raising awareness and making it easier for them, there’s a higher chance that your coffee packaging will enter the correct waste stream and be processed sustainably.

At MTPak Coffee, we understand the importance of providing consumers with coffee packaging that can be disposed of easily. We offer 100% recyclable LDPE packaging that uses just two layers, compared to the three or four in many coffee bags around the world. 

This means we use less energy when manufacturing it and it’s also much easier for specialty coffee roasters and consumers alike to dispose of sustainably.

More so, our team can custom print coffee bags that reflect your brand identity and stand out on the shelf. We can help you select from a range of sustainable materials and additional components to design the perfect packaging for your needs.

Furthermore, we are able to digitally print coffee packaging with a quick turnaround and shipping time. This allows us to offer low minimum order quantities (MOQs) of packaging, no matter what size or material.

Images courtesy of Triple Co Roast and Decadent Decaf Coffee Co.

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

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