Using pearlescent coatings on sustainable coffee bags

Janice Kanniah
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February 6, 2024
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Modern coffee brands are spoilt for choice when it comes to packaging products. While many opt for standard sustainable coffee bags, more have adopted innovative packaging finishes to ensure the product stands out. 

Studies show customers are faced with over 20,000 product options in a single 30-minute supermarket visit. As competition in the specialty coffee market increases, brands should consider going beyond the typical finishes available in packaging design. 

One of these distinct finishes is adding a pearlescent finish to all, or part, of coffee packaging. This is a finish that uses light reflection to appear differently depending on which angle the customer views the packaging, helping to create visual movement. 

As I dive into how pearlescent coatings work with sustainable coffee bags, I also spoke to several coffee roasters about the power behind custom coffee packaging. 

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What is a pearlescent finish?

For centuries, people have treasured sea shells for their unique reflective appearance. Interestingly, this effect is created by nacre: a strong aragonite coating that molluscs secrete when irritated to protect their soft inner tissues. 

Over time, several layers of nacre can produce a pearl. Alternatively, it can leave a layer on the shell that we perceive as a pearlescent finish. This finish manipulates light refraction, as it consists of thousands of reflective pigment particles that are thinner but wider than standard colour pigments. 

Printers can reproduce this synthetically using mica flakes coated with titanium oxide or synthetic materials coated with metal oxides. It’s important to note that mica-based pigments make up the majority of the market. These pigments allow you to see their colour and visible light wavelengths simultaneously, producing a white reflection and the main pigment colour at the same time. This changes depending on the angle of view and the colour of the surface it’s applied to. 

Notably, there are differences between a pearlescent finish and a duo-chrome, metallic, or iridescent finish. For example a due-chrome or two-tone finish will reflect two complementary colours in a single shade. However, metallic pigments contain iron oxide or titanium dioxide, which is more opaque and stronger in colour, giving it a grittier, sparkly sheen. 

Beyond this, an iridescent finish changes colour depending on the angle it is viewed, but only reflects other colours. A pearlescent finish, on the other hand, will reflect white in addition to other colours.

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How to use a pearlescent finish on coffee bags

Aesthetic packaging is more likely to be noticed by customers. Notably, over a third of customers will share photos of distinctive packaging on social media, providing brands with free word-of-mouth advertising.

Therefore, there are several advantages to using a pearlescent coating on coffee packaging — in addition to its eye-catching abilities. 

  • Spot treatment: Adding a pearlescent coating to a specific section of coffee packaging can create contrast. Beyond this, it draws attention to a part of the design, and adds depth and texture.
  • Overprint treatment: Some brands cover the entire packaging in a pearlescent coating. It can be applied as the first or last coating to create variations on the look. Adding it last creates a less crisp effect while applying it after the other printed elements can mute its impact.
  • Combination treatment: Adding a pearlescent coating to different backgrounds can also produce a unique result as they’re compatible with CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black) and PMS (Pantone Matching System) printing. For example, the finish can be layered over white or black paper to appear more or less opaque. It can also be combined with metallic or iridescent colours, embossing, lacquering, and foiling.

It’s a common concern that UV rays would impact coffee packaging with such a finish. However, research suggests that pearlescent pigments could extend the lifespan of water-based flexographic ink by improving its light-fastness parameters. Some finishes may also have additives added to make them chemical-resistant and heat-resistant.

Amalia Ebbensen, the CEO of Made by Mama in Brooklyn, New York City, US, explains why she and her partners invested in metallic sheens for the brand’s in-house coffee products. “We use this material because it is fantastic for storage and offers an excellent barrier to light, heat, and moisture.”

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Can a pearlescent finish work with sustainable coffee bags?

“These days, sustainability isn’t really an option. Customers expect it as a standard,” observes Alex Kinder, the director at West Berkshire Roastery. Therefore, a common concern is the compatibility between packaging finishes and sustainable materials. 

Research shows that paper-based packaging will only increase in popularity over the next decade. Statistics reveal that over half of surveyed consumers view packaging sustainability as a value driver, with over a third willing to pay more for sustainable packaged products. 

Beyond this, governments around the world for bans on single-use plastics or require that product packaging be made from at least 50% recycled materials. In addition, many require paper packaging to be at least 60% recyclable. Some governments have suggested there may be tax credits for businesses that are quick to phase this into operations. 

Provided brands opt for a reputable packager who uses traceable product material and additives, there’s no reason why pearlescent finishes on coffee packaging shouldn’t be recyclable. 

However, it does mean ensuring that any mineral-based inks are made using ethically extracted minerals. Mica, which forms the basis of most pearlescent pigments, is a mineral and not a metal, and does not require a plastic coating or covering. This means it will not require specialised separation and processing for recycling, like paper packaging containing glitter and other finishes. 

As it also can be added to water-based inks, it will emit minimal volatile organic compounds and therefore will not produce pollution during production or recycling. 

The key to making use of pearlescent coffee packaging without compromising on your brand’s sustainability credentials is to work with a packager with experience in designing and printing in a range of finishes. At MTPak Coffee, we can guide you through creating pearlescent sustainable coffee bags from conceptualisation to recycling. 

Contact our team today to find out more about how we can help you. 

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