Can mushrooms be used to make coffee packaging?

Sam Shipiti
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March 21, 2024
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Several studies show that consumers have a growing interest in sustainable product packaging. As of January 2023, over 80% of consumers are demanding sustainable packaging for their products. Notably, research shows over 60% of consumers are willing to pay more for products with sustainable packaging. 

In light of this, sustainable coffee packaging options have become more accessible. These include bags made from kraft or rice paper, polylactic acid (PLA), and, more recently, mushrooms. 

Very few materials are as special as mycelium, which is derived from mushrooms. To explore this material and whether it can be applied to coffee packaging, I spoke to Gabriel Barta, the CEO and founder of RongoDesign

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Mushroom packaging: Mycelium as a coffee packaging material 

RongoDesign is the first Romanian mycelium manufacturing company, and Gabriel brings his rich experience in biotechnological processes and food waste utilisation. He describes mycelium as “the root-like structure of mushrooms.” Experts have since found its use in packaging, where it acts as a natural adhesive. 

Mycelium grows when fed appropriate agricultural waste by-products, such as corn stalks and hemp hurds. It bonds with these items to form a physical structure with sufficient strength and durability. Once the desired shape and weight are achieved, the mycelium is heated or dried to stop the growth process.

Gabriel, who holds an MSc degree in Food Quality Management, explains, “The process involves moulding mycelium into desired forms, such as flexible foams or rigid composite materials.” He adds that the natural material is lightweight, strong, and cost-effective to produce, “making it an attractive alternative for sustainable packaging.” Beyond this, mycelium packaging is biodegradable. 

In his research on Mycelium-Based Composites (MBCs), Gabriel mentions the use of spent coffee grounds as a valuable substrate for producing these innovative materials. “The MBCs derived from coffee grounds exhibit properties that make them suitable for packaging solutions [because of] their customisable strength and density,” he explains. 

In addition to coffee packaging, MBCs can be used in architectural designs and insulation, clothing, food, and sound absorption. Since all these products are bio-based, that automatically means they are sustainable in their production and disposal.

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What are the most sustainable materials for coffee packaging? 

Mycelium is an innovative packaging material with the same characteristics as polystyrene and polypropylene. It is highly effective in protecting coffee, making it a suitable packaging alternative in the fight against waste and pollution. 

As of 2023, packaging accounted for 40% of all plastic produced, with more than a third of it ending up as waste. While plastics take hundreds of years to decompose, mycelium only takes a few weeks. Its only limiting attribute is that it doesn’t last as long as its traditional counterparts on the shelves.  

However, recyclable plastics do exist, with polyethylene and PLA taking the lead. As Gabriel confirms, “Bioplastics derived from renewable sources [such as] cornstarch, sugarcane, or algae, offer a sustainable alternative to traditional plastics.” 

Coffee bags made from kraft paper, corrugated cardboard, paper tape and other forms of paper also hold a top spot in sustainability with a 76% recycling rate. Paper is also compostable, making it one of the best eco-friendly packages. Wood is popular as a sustainable option, too, crafting everything from papers (made from pulpwood chips) to sturdy crates and pallets. Its versatility extends to efficient recycling, with the World Recyclers Organisation reporting a rise in recyclability rates as governments commit to increasing recycling.

Beyond wood, Gabriel highlights that other plant-based extracts, such as wheat and bamboo, are being introduced in sustainable packaging. “These materials are biodegradable, reusable, and free from harmful chemicals commonly found in traditional plastic packaging.” 

Glass is another packaging material that can be recycled repeatedly without losing its qualities. Additionally, aluminium is an infinitely recyclable material commonly used in storing cold brew coffee. It uses relatively less energy for recycling and accounts for the smallest percentage of waste in most countries.

Gabriel’s parting shot to businesses striving to make their coffee packaging more sustainable is to “make use of compostable packaging, recycling programmes, innovative solutions, and minimalist packaging alternatives.”

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Important factors to consider when investing in sustainable coffee bags

Before taking this approach, Gabriel advises coffee businesses to consider several factors, such as supply chain issues, costs, and differentiation. In an interview with the Bulletin, Andy Bass, the CEO of Evocative, the pioneers of mycelium technology, says that mushroom packaging can decompose in 45 days after being thrown in a garden. Mushroom coffee packaging could drastically reduce the carbon footprint of outlets with fast-moving coffee. 

However, this material is not as widely available as other alternatives. Therefore, brands that invest in mushroom coffee bags risk running into supply issues, potentially affecting business. Beyond this, mycelium doesn’t last as long as other sustainable materials like polyethylene and PLA. As a result, it’s less suitable for products with a longer shelf life. 

Another thing to keep in mind is the cost. While exploring its sustainability, researchers from Bina Nusantara University discovered that mycelium has been attracting interest from most big corporations because of its low manufacturing cost and abundance of natural resources. As the manufacturing process is cheaper, the product should be more cost-effective. However, brands must do a cost comparison with other sustainable alternatives.

Can you customise mushroom coffee packaging?

“Mycelium packaging can be tailored to specific product dimensions, ensuring a snug fit and optimal protection,” Gabriel explains. A recent survey by Ipsos confirmed that over 67% of customers base their purchasing decisions on packaging design and materials. With mushroom packaging, brands can achieve both sustainability and increased sales.

Sustainable coffee packaging is designed to contribute to a circular economy. This approach aims to prevent waste creation and improve the journey of packaging materials throughout the supply chain. It also encourages businesses to invest in innovative alternatives where possible.

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.

Article body images courtesy of RongoDesign

For more information on sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team

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