Are compostable coffee bags the answer to global plastic bans?

Tori Taylor
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March 5, 2024
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The latest studies suggest that it has become more of a necessity than an option for businesses to adopt eco-friendly practices and sustainable packaging. New research has found that product packaging in the US is expected to grow 1.5% annually until 2025, outpacing the expected population growth. 

A growing number of consumers expect product packaging to be compostable or recyclable. Compostable coffee bags, for example, have become increasingly popular among specialty coffee roasters. 

Compostable coffee bags are made from plant-based matter that breaks down to produce nutrient-rich compost and leaves no environmentally damaging residue. Additionally, they are sturdy, affordable, and easy to produce, while reducing a brand’s dependency on traditional plastics. 

As more governments implement bans on single-use items and petroleum-based plastics, could compostable coffee bags be the ultimate packaging solution?

To find out how they’ve benefitted from investing in compostable coffee packaging, I spoke to Tom Saxon, Head of Coffee at Batch Coffee Club in the UK, and Chris Vigilante, the CEO of Vigilante Coffee Company.

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Why invest in compostable coffee bags?

In early 2023, members of an intergovernmental political forum consisting of the USA, Japan, Germany, France, the UK, Italy, and Canada, known as G7, committed to eliminating plastic pollution by 2040. Being only a few decades away, governments are likely to ramp up the crackdown on plastic packaging. The consensus is recycling is unable to curb the issue with only 9% of all plastic ending up this way. It needs to be phased out at the source.

This is already affecting coffee roasters around the world. “As roasters, we have a responsibility to try to reduce as much plastic use as possible,” says Tom, who has over 10 years of experience working with specialty coffee. “Although many roasters use recycled or recyclable plastic bags, I think, as a business, it’s important to lead by example.” One way he is doing this is at Batch Coffee by using compostable coffee packaging.

Compostable coffee bags are traditionally made from materials that will, under the right circumstances, break down into organic components. Usually, they are made using renewable resources such as maize, cornstarch, and sugarcane. Once broken down, these components leave no negative impact on the environment.   

“At first glance, it may be difficult to spot the difference between compostable coffee bags and those made from other materials,” Tom explains. “On closer inspection, you may find that compostable bags are slightly thinner. For me, there’s no difference in quality in terms of the material and print.”

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The benefits of compostable coffee bags

Tom explains that the pros to compostable coffee bags include the environmental aspects, and “the fact you can rest assured the bags will break down in good time in your compost pile. A con is that they have to be used within a certain time frame as they can break down. So, it’s important to order packaging strategically. Another con is that they may not be as robust as other materials,” he adds. 

“While there are compromises with compostable bags at the moment, I think the pros outweigh the cons. Batch Coffee has sent tens of thousands of compostable coffee subscription bags into the UK postal service, which can be rough, and never received any notice that the bags had failed.”

At Vigilante Coffee, Chris explains the brand uses “flexible packaging made from plant-based renewable and compostable sources such as wood pulp and sugarcane.” Compostability was top of the agenda when choosing packaging for the brand. 

“We decided to go with compostable packages because they will break up, whether they end up in a home compost or as trash.” He adds that “they break down faster than plastic or something that you would normally recycle.” Beyond this, Vigilante Coffee has a page on its website that “talks about disposal and composting our custom compostable coffee bags,” Chris notes.  

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Could compostable coffee bags replace plastic packaging?

Studies show that consumers are increasingly concerned about sustainability. Beyond this, research indicates that 75% of Millennials are likely to pay a premium for sustainable products and packaging. 

That said, Tom warns against assuming all compostable packaging will be of high quality. “If low-quality compostable packaging isn’t airtight, it means the oxygen has been in contact with the coffee for a period and the coffee may taste flat and unapparent when brewed.” 

He also recommends that coffee roasters consider their personal needs to balance the packaging’s performance and compostability. “I found it challenging to balance compostable packaging’s environmental, design, functionality, and cost factors. You may have to compromise on one or two of these factors. For me, the environmental factor was most important.” 

Choosing compostable coffee bags can help enhance a brand’s existing image while attracting new, eco-conscious consumers. This, in turn, expands the brand’s overall reach. Additionally, by diverting packaging from landfills, compostable coffee bags contribute to overall waste reduction. 

However, there are slight challenges around the use of compostable coffee bags. Effective composting requires a specific facility or at-home composting setup, and not all regions may have access to this. Therefore, compostable bags may end up in waste streams, undermining their decomposition benefits.

This is why brands must ensure custom coffee bags are compostable in the area. Beyond this, consumer awareness is crucial as improper disposal could damage a brand’s reputation. Additionally, coffee businesses need to provide consumers with the correct information about local composting standards. Brands should ensure to include this throughout the process of designing custom packaging and marketing materials, to convey information easily and effectively.

Specialty coffee brands have a unique opportunity to further enhance their commitment to sustainability. For example, some have implemented a comprehensive composting scheme in their physical stores. Brands have established designated bins within the store where consumers can conveniently deposit used coffee bags. This allows the business to ensure proper disposal. 

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. 

Our packaging solutions will both protect your coffee and provide consumers with a pouch that can be disposed of in compost heaps once empty. MTPak Coffee’s kraft paper and PLA packaging are certified by TÜV Austria as OK compost HOME and OK compost INDUSTRIAL, while our degassing valves are also compostable.

Images courtesy of Batch Coffee Club.

For more information on compostable coffee bags, contact our team

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