How popular are biodegradable coffee bags?

Paul Clearfire
December 20, 2023
biodegradable coffee bags, biodegradable coffee packaging, custom coffee bags, custom printed coffee bags, sustainable coffee bags, Tigray Coffee Co

Within several industries, the terms ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ are often used interchangeably. Notably, some manufacturers, coffee roasters, café owners and even waste management experts fail to distinguish compostable and biodegradable coffee bags adequately. 

Worse, international standards for “biodegradable” and “compostable” make use of these two terms inconsistently. So, exactly what do these terms mean? And what types of compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable bags are coffee roasters investing in, and why?

To determine the popularity of biodegradable coffee bags, I spoke with several players within the specialty coffee industry. 

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Breaking down biodegradability

To prove the ‘biodegradability’ of packaging, manufacturers often cite the European industrial standard EN 13432 or the international standard ISO 14855-1. They then advertise products that meet these standards as being “biodegradable.” 

While these claims are technically true, they are confusing. Scientists developed these standards as guides to a given material’s compostability. They base the standards on measurements of the material’s rate of biodegradation within an industrial composting environment.

Simply put, the term “biodegradable” literally means “biologically degradable”. In other words, to say that something that is biodegradable means it can be broken down by organic processes. By that definition, nearly everything will biodegrade eventually. 

Moreover, everything that is compostable is biodegradable, as compost is produced through a process of biodegradation. 

However, not everything that is biodegradable is compostable. ‘Compostability’ requires that a material biodegrade to a certain state within a set amount of time in a specific composting environment. 

For the term biodegradable to become meaningful, there must be a deeper understanding of how certain materials biodegrade under specific circumstances. That’s where standards such as EN 13432 and ISO 14855-1 come in.  

For instance, EN 13432 dictates specific requirements for labelling materials as compostable. For manufacturers to claim a material is compostable, 90% of it must biodegrade within 180 days in a rigorously defined commercial composting environment. 

Many people have an unrealistic understanding of what biodegradable means. They expect biodegradable products to break down quickly. However, this belief is untrue and environmentally dangerous. 

As an example, polylactic acid (PLA) is a bio-plastic made from sugarcane or similar bio-materials and meets the EN 13432 standard. Manufacturers use PLA in several ‘biodegradable’ products, including as a barrier in kraft paper coffee bags

Therefore, a kraft paper coffee bag lined with PLA will break down completely in a commercial compost facility. However, when disposed of incorrectly, PLA takes at least 80 years to decompose. Moreover, it is no more marine degradable than fossil-based plastics. 

For these reasons, consumers should not throw PLA-lined bags into nature or dispose of them in home composters. 

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How popular are biodegradable coffee bags?

To better understand the popularity of biodegradable coffee bags, the level of biodegradability must be specified first. For instance, when discussing coffee bags that adhere to the standards mentioned above, they’re likely made, in whole or in part, from bio-plastics like PLA. 

For bags that biodegrade completely in natural, landfill, or home compost environments, then all-natural options, such as unlined kraft paper bags should be considered.  

All of these may be legitimately advertised as ‘biodegradable’, but the former is more rigorously deemed ‘compostable’.

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What to consider when investing in biodegradable coffee bags

When Richard Ali, the founder and CEO of Tigray Coffee in Abuja, Nigeria, was choosing coffee bags, he faced several challenges. He explains that as a business person, “the issue of the environment is at the front of my consciousness. Across Abuja, I see waterways clogged by plastic.” 

Many in the city have no access to clean water and commonly buy sachets of water in plastic bags. “People discard of these bags on the streets, and eventually they end up in the waterways. The same thing with single-use plastic bags. Everyone has them and they are very cheap.” Furthermore, Abuja has very limited recycling facilities, making recyclable bags a poor choice for the community.

Richard addressed these issues by investing in PLA-lined kraft paper coffee bags. He explains the brand wanted eco-friendly packaging that was both biodegradable and multiple-use. “The idea is for people to love their packaging and then to put other things in it,” he says. 

Customers of Tigray Coffee can re-use the bags for ginger and other spices. Then, they can be composted or incinerated when they become too worn. 

Richard’s use of these bags lines up well with industry trends. Compared to other packing materials such as plastic, glass and metal, consumers prefer paper over a range of environmental, visual, and physical attributes. This is one reason the flexible packaging paper market is on track to grow at an estimated CAGR of 4% during 2022 and 2032. 

An advantage of PLA-lined kraft paper coffee bags is they preserve the look and feel of paper while offering the barrier properties of PLA. However, not all coffee roasters can fit this choice into their business model. 

David Clark is the head roaster and green coffee buyer at Broadcast Coffee, Seattle. He explains that the brand currently uses a packaging material that “succeeds at our goal of maintaining freshness for as long as possible.”

“Beyond this, it provides a barrier for our darker roasted coffees, is strong enough to hold up to shipping thousands of miles away, and it looks good,” he adds. “It really makes our branding pop on the shelves!”

“What that means – due to where the manufacturers are at this point – is that our packaging is neither compostable nor recyclable,” David explains. “We are seriously considering recyclable materials for our next iteration, and would strongly prefer fully compostable packaging.”

On the other hand, Andy Newbom, co-owner of Torque Coffees in San Diego, takes a holistic approach to packaging. He designs every aspect of his business model to work in concert to optimise environmental impacts, a philosophy he calls “Destroy Less”.

“We’re not concerned much with barrier,” says Andy. “We sell direct to the consumer, roasted to order. So the oldest the customer might have is a bag sitting at their house that they forgot to open for 14 days. We ship the same day it’s roasted and always will. So barrier performance is immaterial, within reason.”

Andy fills this need with coffee bags composed of kraft paper made from FSC certified wood pulp and rice paper, and lined with PLA. 

So, what about unlined kraft paper? I asked David Clark if he knew of any coffee roasters who used unlined kraft paper, perhaps in a ‘roast on demand’ model. “I don’t,” he says, adding that unlined Kraft bags do not provide the barrier necessary for any roast level above a fairly light one. 

“That would mean you’re using that coffee less than 48 hours post-roast, before the oil secretions make their way to the outside of the bag. The coffee won’t taste as good or be as easy to work with as, say, a coffee that is five days post-roast,” he explains. 

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. By switching to biodegradable coffee bags, you are 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.

Our biodegradable coffee bags are made from the following sustainable materials:

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

We guarantee that all our paper-based coffee packaging, including our kraft paper-spun bags, is sourced from forests that have been certified by the FSC.

Images courtesy of Tigray Coffee,  Broadcast Coffee, and Torque Coffees

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

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