What kind of sustainable coffee bags do customers prefer?

Paul Clearfire
January 10, 2024
sustainable coffee bags, sustainable coffee packaging, custom coffee bags, custom coffee packaging, custom printed coffee bags, custom printed coffee packaging, Torque Coffees

Consumer interest in sustainability has never been greater. This trend is especially visible in the specialty coffee industry, where demand for sustainable coffee bags increasingly drives packaging material choices. 

Predictions show the coffee packaging industry is anticipated to exceed $991.6 million by 2027. Notably, the paper and paperboard packaging segment is expected to dominate the market during that forecast period. Primary drivers behind this growth are consumption driven expansion of the coffee industry, increased consumer demand for sustainable packaging, and an uptick in the adoption of recyclables, especially paper. 

Those looking to invest in sustainable coffee bags should study these trends to make packaging material choices that align with company values. 

We speak to several specialty coffee roasters about the pros and cons of each material, including their environmental impacts, and explore consumer preferences.

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Sustainable coffee bags: Understanding the materials

When choosing materials for coffee packaging, brands have several sustainable options. Low density polyethylene (LDPE), for example, is a popular material for coffee bags as it is a soft, flexible and lightweight plastic. This material is highly durable and is likely to retain its integrity during shipping. 

Beyond this, LDPE offers excellent barrier protection and will preserve coffee’s freshness over extended time frames. It also accepts high quality printing in a wide variety of colours while being 100% recyclable. 

That said, LDPE is derived from petroleum, which means it contributes to the production of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2). Additionally, LDPE recycling facilities are relatively scarce compared to other plastics. 

Another option is polylactic acid (PLA), a flexible and versatile bioplastic made from renewable organic materials such as corn, sugar cane, and sugar beet. Like LDPE, PLA is durable and shippable and offers good barrier protection for up to 12 months. More importantly, PLA is 100% compostable in an industrial composting environment and accepts digital printing. 

While durable, PLA is designed to break down more quickly than traditional plastics. Therefore, it’s likely to lose integrity after about 12 months. More so, PLA requires disposal in industrial composters, which are not widely available. 

Rice paper is a beautiful, natural material made from renewable bamboo and quintan tree bark. This material is visually and tactilely appealing, and confers a natural, textured aesthetic that many consumers find appealing. Plus, rice paper supports high-quality printing and brilliant colours while being 100% recyclable and home compostable.

Some factors to consider before investing in rice paper however, is that is has very low barrier performance. Therefore, extended use for coffee beyond a few days requires the addition of an internal barrier layer, such as PLA. 

Made from natural, virgin wood pulp, kraft paper has long been the standard for packaging roasted beans. It is one of the most affordable options for sustainable packaging and is fully customisable. 

When made from wood pulp that conforms to FSC-certified standards, kraft paper provides a sustainable and renewable resource. Beyond this, it is 100% recyclable and home compostable, which makes it a preferred option by most consumers. 

However, as with rice paper, kraft paper has low barrier qualities. Thus, extended use beyond a few days requires the addition of an internal barrier layer. It may also require extra precautions to preserve its structural integrity during shipping.

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What kind of sustainable coffee bags do customers prefer?

Research shows overall trends in coffee packaging are shifting towards paper. A 2023 consumer survey from Two Sides Europe provides important insights into this trend. The survey questioned over 10,000 consumers in 16 countries across the world to “provide an assessment of consumers’ attitudes and beliefs towards the paper industry and its products.”  

The results compare consumer’s preferences for paper/cardboard, plastic, glass, and metal across a range of environmental, visual and physical attributes. The survey revealed consumers showed a preference for paper in 10 out of the 15 attributes in the survey. Notably, respondents favoured paper/cardboard for environmental factors such as home compostable (76%), better for the environment (55%) and easier to recycle (49%).  

Another survey from Ipsos found that 67% of Americans feel that paper or cardboard packaging makes a product more attractive than other packaging materials. Around 63% of respondents stated paper and cardboard packaging makes products seem premium or high quality. And 67% also said that packaging materials often influence their purchase decisions when selecting which products to buy.

For many reasons, paper packaging appears to be what consumers prefer, as it is better for the environment.

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What to consider before investing in paper coffee packaging

It’s important to note that not all specialty coffee brands have chosen to follow this trend. For Scott Montgomery, the Chief Executive Officer of Barrie House Coffee in New York, “The number one concern is shelf life.” The brand ships coffee thousands of miles to dozens of retailers nationwide. “We require a bag that will provide a minimum of 12 months.”  

The need for freshness is also an adoption barrier for David Clark, a head roaster and green coffee buyer. “Right now, we use a packaging material that succeeds at our goal of maintaining freshness for as long as possible and is strong enough to hold up to shipping thousands of miles away.” For clients David works with, that meant choosing packaging materials that are neither compostable nor recyclable.

So, what options can coffee roasters and café owners pursue if they’re committed to the most environmentally friendly option that most consumers prefer?

One way to address shelf life and barrier issues is to choose a business model with shorter product turnaround. Andy Newbom of Torque Coffees in San Diego has adopted just such a model. “We are not concerned as much with barrier,” says Andy. Torque’s business model is built around roast to order and the brand sells direct to consumer, “We ship the same day th e coffee is roasted and always will.”

Another option is to pair the kraft or rice paper bag with a layer that can provide enhanced barrier performance. Using a material such as PLA is a good combination, as it preserves the compostability of the paper bag. Just make sure that you inform your customers of the need to compost these in an industrial facility, and not to send them to a landfill.

At MTPak Coffee, 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. 

Images courtesy of Barrie House Coffee and Torque Coffees

For more information on sustainable coffee bags, contact our team

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Paul Clearfire
Paul Clearfire

Paul Clearfire is a coffee historian and author living in Portland, OR, and has spent the past 20 years perfecting the art of manual espresso extraction. He's been writing for Perfect Daily Grind Media since 2023.

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