Clear polyethylene: How does it work with recyclable coffee bags?

Janice Kanniah
January 25, 2024
recyclable coffee bags, clear polyethylene, clear PE, PE, PE coffee bags, recyclable coffee packaging, San Rafael Coffee Roasters

Product packaging can provide brands with several opportunities to improve the overall customer experience. This can extend to the consumption process and the relationship the consumer develops with the brand. In specialty coffee, packaging is also used to provide transparency on the beans origins, certifications, and preparation methods.

Recyclable coffee bags that make use of transparent materials, for instance, also offer several benefits. Transparent packaging, or coffee bags with clear windows, can improve customers’ perceptions of quality.  

The most common, transparent material used in coffee packaging is clear polyethylene (PE). Unlike traditional plastics, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), PE is better suited for flexible pouches as it is lightweight and cost-effective.

However, there are environmental concerns around PE, as plastics are notoriously difficult to recycle and repurpose. 

So, where does this leave brands that want to use PE in conjunction with recyclable coffee packaging? To learn more, I spoke to Carlos Rene Guerra, the CEO of San Rafael Coffee Roasters in Copan Ruinas, Honduras.

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Breaking down clear polyethylene (PE)

Polyethylene or polythene (PE) is the most commonly produced petroleum-based plastic. Depending on how it is processed, PE can be used in various densities, which results in different levels of flexibility and transparency. 

The strength of PE can range between rigid or hard to flexible enough to be bent without losing its shape. It can also have varying degrees of resistance to temperature, oil, water, impact, and punctures.

Two types of PE exist: high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and low-density polyethylene (LDPE). LDPE is the preferred choice for flexible packaging structures, such as coffee pouches and bags. In its thinnest form, LDPE can be transparent and it is non-toxic, making it safe for storing food items. 

What sets LDPE apart from traditional plastics is the ease and affordability with which it can be reused and recycled. This highly depends on how the materials are disposed of. For example, LDPE often displays the recycling code #4 and must be placed in the appropriate bin to be recycled. 

Failure to do so can contaminate entire waste streams and divert them to landfills. Beyond this, if the LDPE material had any polymers added, these would need to be separated before processing. 

Notably, when LDPE is processed correctly, it is cleaned, melted down, and reformed into pellets. Manufacturers use these pellets to form coffee bags through injection moulding and extrusion.  

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Can PE be used in coffee packaging?

San Rafael Coffee Roasters is a family-owned business that has been producing, roasting and selling coffee for over two decades. CEO and general manager, Carlos explains that the brand has been using clear PE to package its retail food items for some time. 

“It has a lower price bracket, and it is hygienic while allowing buyers to visualise the food before purchase,” explains Carlos, who will be a guest speaker at the Producer and Roaster Forum in Guatemala

San Rafael Coffee uses simple, branded coffee bags in primary colours. The brand name stands out due to the hot foil stamping technique, while the labels convey essential information about the coffee. 

A study on transparent windows on food packaging found participants preferred to buy foods with transparent packaging rather than that which is opaque. However, that is unlikely to ‘cancel out’ other concerns they may have about the packaging material in question. 

According to the global market intelligence agency Mintel‘s Food Packaging Trends Report, over 50% of surveyed shoppers feel it’s important to see a product through its packaging. More so, this can increase their perception of how authentic and fresh the product is. Despite this, customers are aware that several packaging materials are unsustainable, and this can influence their purchasing decisions.  

Carlos admits using clear PE in coffee packaging results in less packaging material waste in terms of volume and weight. That said, he admits there are still several concerns over its recyclability and its subsequent environmental impact. 

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Ensuring clear PE doesn’t impact recyclable coffee bags

While PE is recyclable, it has a limited performance lifespan – a factor that Carlos says brands should consider. He believes coffee roasters should take certain precautions before adopting clear PE so that they don’t end up using packaging with an extensive and negative environmental impact. 

He believes the combination of clear PE and coffee packaging should be reserved for consumers who will use the product immediately. ”As a packaging material, it’s probably best suited for brands who know their consumers are unlikely to store the coffee for over 7 days.”

He also recommends that coffee bags containing PE are only used by brands that have access to plastic waste collection and recycling facilities. This makes it easier and more convenient for consumers to dispose of the packaging correctly. Coffee packaging that is easy to recycle can encourage brand loyalty, as it shows a brands commitment to sustainability. 

Some customers may be willing to pay a premium for sustainable packaging – provided it adequately protects the contents within. It’s important to note that several governments across the world are moving to crack down on plastic packaging waste, so now it is the ideal time to transition towards a more sustainable packaging option.

When it comes to designing coffee packaging, it can feel impossible to balance practicality, functionality, and aesthetics. Naturally, brands want their packaging to represent their ethics, values, and personality, while ensuring it preserves coffee quality.

MTPak Coffee can assist those who are interested in using clear PE to package coffee without compromising on its recyclability or appearance. We offer recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable coffee packaging solutions made from natural sources such as kraft paper, rice paper, and LDPE with an eco-friendly PLA lining. We also give you the freedom to personalise every detail of your packaging, and our design team is always ready to help when needed. 

We offer full packaging solutions for coffee businesses worldwide. From cafes and roasters to farmers and traders, we can help build your business packaging solutions.

Images courtesy of San Rafael Coffee Roasters

For more information on recyclable coffee bags, contact our team

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Janice Kanniah
Janice Kanniah

Janice is freelance writer based in South Africa and has written for MTPak Coffee since 2020. Her interests are in writing about sustainability, the circular economy, and the future of the environment.

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