How to ensure sustainable coffee bags are circular economy compliant 

Janice Kanniah
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February 9, 2024
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In the past, product packaging followed a linear path from resource extraction to manufacture, use, and disposal. Then, society transitioned to a recycling economy, introducing the importance of reusing materials and end-use products to minimise waste. 

Today, businesses are adopting a more circular approach. A circular economy prioritises recycling, reusing, redistributing, repairing, refurbishing and re-manufacturing end-use products and packaging to produce less waste.

While several brands have transitioned to sustainable coffee bags, ensuring they are compatible with a circular economy can be a challenge. 

To learn more, I spoke to Paulius Pavelas Danilovas, CEO of the independent research and educational facility, the Polymer Competence Center in Lithuania. 

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Why is a circular economy approach to coffee packaging so important?

It’s estimated that a third of European municipal waste is attributed to discarded product packaging. In 2021, EU countries produced over 84 million tonnes of packaging waste. Even more worrying is that this volume is expected to increase dramatically by 2030. 

While recycling rates have increased, it hasn’t increased enough to outpace the packaging waste being generated. Businesses regularly produce hard-to-recycle packaging, including coffee roasters who use layered packaging materials that include metallic and plastic components. They need to understand the role their waste plays in adding to pollution and find ways to make it more compatible with a circular economy approach.

The world is currently experiencing a triple planetary crisis: climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss. While the effects of this have been felt for some time, they are fast encroaching on how the average person lives today. 

Notably, one of the larger impacts has been on the coffee industry. Particularly in the disruption of the carefully balanced conditions required to provide the volume and grade of beans consumers demand. 

Coffee roasters should look for ways to reduce their environmental impact by going beyond recyclability to a more circular approach. There are many benefits to this. Paulius explains that a circular economy aligns with regional policies and reflects a commitment to sustainability while driving innovation and responsible resource management.

It also encompasses researching and developing new materials and adopting sustainable practices. Beyond this, it involves improving resource efficiency, reducing waste, and implementing circular design strategies in technological processes. 

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Understanding the challenges with sustainable coffee bags

With so many benefits, what could be keeping coffee roasters from adopting a more circular approach? While the majority of coffee brands are adopting circular economy principles or investing in eco-friendly packaging materials, Paulius explains that challenges hamper this process.

“Coffee has specific needs, including preserving its aroma and maintaining barriers against unwanted factors,” he says. “These demands make finding sustainable alternatives tricky since circular economy practices often focus on simplicity and recyclability.” 

“While sustainable practices can lead to cost savings, premium pricing opportunities, and regulatory compliance, the initial investment and transition costs pose immediate financial challenges,” Paulius adds. “Plus, the material options could impact the aesthetics and functionality of packaging. And educating consumers on disposal and making adjustments in the supply chain may demand additional resources,” he continues. 

Despite these challenges, coffee roasters should make the switch sooner rather than later. Governments around the world are phasing out non-recyclable packaging and customers are exercising their sustainability preferences with their wallets

Paulius emphasises that the circular economy “presents coffee roasters with the opportunity to showcase their commitment to sustainability. By emphasising recyclable or compostable materials, they can align with consumer preferences for eco-friendly products, enhancing brand loyalty and attracting environmentally conscious customers.”

He believes this also differentiates roasters in a competitive market, setting them apart as leaders in responsible packaging practices.

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Common pitfalls with sustainable coffee packaging 

Today, the majority of coffee bags feature some kind of eco-friendly claim or a recycling symbol or two. While this would have guaranteed trust a few years ago, customers and businesses alike are starting to realise that accidental greenwashing can take place. 

Packaging that is labelled as recyclable often isn’t, and unclear instructions often result in packaging being disposed of inappropriately. Businesses can avoid this by analysing their needs before committing to a particular packaging solution.

“First, [coffee roasters] need to assess the environmental impact of their new and old packaging materials throughout their lifecycle,” Paulius says.” “They must consider factors such as, raw material sourcing, manufacturing processes, transportation, use, and end-of-life disposal or recycling options.” 

For those considering new or improved packaging solutions, Paulius expresses the importance of evaluating “the feasibility of implementing circularity principles within (your) existing supply chain.” He recommends considering factors like “availability of new packaging materials, compatibility with existing packaging machinery and processes, and potential effects on product quality and safety.”

Once a brand has selected a potential packaging material, it will need to “address technical challenges, such as potential complications arising from the incorporation of compostable materials into recyclable streams, which may hinder identification and removal,” Paulius adds. 

“Businesses (must consider) greenwashing when selecting circular economy compliant packaging to avoid misleading practices that may compromise the integrity of circularity efforts,” he adds.  

An example of this, Paulius says, is kraft paper as an outer layer with non-compostable, aluminised plastic layers. This creates a misleading appearance of environmental friendliness. “While the paper layer may biodegrade, the underlying plastic remains non-compostable, leading to a misleading impression of overall compostability. Such practices undermine the principles of the circular economy and can contribute to false perceptions of sustainability.”

Transitioning to a circular economy approach in coffee packaging is not something brands can afford to ignore. However, the process requires time, energy, and financial investments. As Paulius emphasises, “businesses must conduct a comprehensive analysis to ensure that their selected circular economy compliant packaging aligns with their strategic objectives, operational capabilities and stakeholder expectations. This is to ensure that their selected packaging materials align genuinely with circular economy principles, fostering transparency and accountability in their sustainability endeavours.”

This, of course, is often easier said than done, particularly for smaller roasters with a limited capacity to invest in such undertakings. This is where MTPak Coffee comes in. As specialist coffee packaging experts with a keen interest in the circular economy, we can help you select a packaging option that aligns with a circular economy approach.

Contact our team today to find out how we can assist you.

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