Examples of sustainable coffee bags that contribute to a circular economy 

Janice Kanniah
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March 13, 2024
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Originally, companies adopted plastic as a lightweight, sanitary, and cost-effective packaging material. It rapidly dominated the packaging market and plastic is now used to contain food and beverages, including coffee. That said, plastic packaging has significant drawbacks which have seen its popularity take a recent nosedive. 

Alongside many alternatives, sustainable coffee bags were created to offset the millions of tons of plastic packaging produced worldwide. Notably, research shows that plastic packaging accounts for a significant percentage of municipal waste. This does not include the emissions produced during its production, use, or disposal.  

On the other hand, sustainable coffee bags are designed to contribute to a circular economy. This approach aims to prevent waste creation and improve a packaging materials’ journey throughout the supply chain. Beyond this, it encourages businesses to invest in innovative alternatives where possible.

I spoke to Paulius Pavelas Danilovas, the CEO of The Polymer Competence Center, to learn which forms of sustainable coffee bags contribute to a circular economy. 

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Why are sustainable coffee bags important? 

The introduction of sustainable coffee packaging has resulted in a mix of “traditional” and “eco-friendly” options flooding the market. These options can range from refillable tins and boxes to aluminium foil-lined coffee bags and pouches made from polylactic acid (PLA) or low-density polyethylene (LDPE)

Materials such as PLA and LDPE are designed to have a better environmental footprint without compromising on performance and cost. That said, institutions around the world are constantly researching and developing additional, more sustainable packaging materials. 

The Polymer Competence Centre, based in Lithuania, is one of them. While it is not a manufacturing or coffee roasting company, the Centre specialises in packaging research and innovation. The aim is to find more environmentally sustainable replacements for the type of non-recyclable, high-barrier multilayer films that many coffee roasters favour to preserve their coffee’s quality.

While not yet a legal requirement, many brands are switching to materials that are compliant with a circular economy. Research shows the global sustainable packaging market will exceed $250 billion by 2032. This growth is likely driven by not only consumer demand but also businesses realising that sustainability can boost profitability. 

How a brand operates more sustainably will vary depending on the goals it has set for itself, and how it affects its profitability. For example, brands focused on offering 100% recyclable coffee bags or reducing the weight of packaging materials will have to balance cost, performance, compostability or recyclability, and compliance. 

For a more comprehensive picture of how “circular” a packaging material is, coffee roasters can use a life cycle analysis. These reports account for the material’s lifespan from manufacturing to disposal so investors can consider factors such as water consumption and carbon emissions. This can help brands prioritise the aspects more relevant or pressing to their business. 

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4 Sustainable coffee packaging options worth considering

According to Paulius, only some standalone packaging options are completely circular, but more could exist in the future. He believes that creating coffee packaging that aligns with a circular economy involves developing it from a singular, bio-based material that facilitates simple recycling. 

He hopes tomorrow’s coffee packaging involves “mono-material structures with high barriers, ensuring both freshness and packaging recyclability.” Furthermore, Paulius insists that “investments in research, development, and innovation are crucial to creating such packaging solutions, while also ensuring competitiveness.”

Unfortunately, these materials have yet to be invested. Instead, Paulius shares his thoughts on the four most popular coffee packaging alternatives that are available. 

  • LDPE coffee bags: “These are affordable and recyclable,” Paulius says. “However, brands should note that high-barrier LDPE coffee bags often contain other polymer layers, such as ethylene vinyl alcohol, that provide high barrier properties. The challenge arises when recycling such multi-layered materials, as it’s practically impossible to separate these layers, which hinders recycling.”
  • PLA coffee bags: “Compostable bags with kraft paper exteriors often raise concerns about greenwashing,” he warns. “Although the outer layer comprises biodegradable material, it’s often combined with plastic layers that are not necessarily compostable. Consumers need to be educated about the compostability of PLA and the importance of disposing of it in the appropriate facilities. Some PLA has industrial composting requirements and mixing PLA with traditional plastic recycling streams can cause contamination.”
  • Aluminium coffee tins: “Aluminum tins are commendable for their recyclability, which might look like contributing to a circular economy,” Paulius explains. “However, customer preferences for flexible packaging and the weight of aluminium impact their widespread adoption. Also, it’s important to acknowledge the energy-intensive process involved in aluminium production.” 
  • Refillable coffee packaging: “Refillable [coffee packaging] contributes positively to waste reduction. However, challenges arise in terms of material durability and hygiene, requiring careful design considerations to ensure long-term usability,” Paulius explains. 

Narrowing down your coffee packaging options

Every circular packaging option will have its unique challenges and benefits. Until a one-size-fits-all packaging solution is developed, brands shouldn’t aim for perfection. Instead, they should research which options are best for their needs. 

Paulius recommends “dedicating time to understanding the fundamental principles of the circular economy, ensuring a genuine commitment, and avoiding greenwashing practices. It’s crucial to undertake the challenging yet vital task of identifying the packaging you use and offer clients and to make comprehensive efforts to assess their sustainability and circularity in the packaging life cycle,” he says. “Honest and clear communication is paramount, acknowledging that there is no one-size-fits-all solution in the pursuit of circular practices.”

He adds that brands should prioritise the use of “easily recyclable or compostable materials, consider bio-based alternatives, and embrace simplicity in packaging design. Beyond this, they must educate consumers on proper disposal practices, and support local recycling infrastructure to develop a sustainable and circular approach to coffee packaging and showcase a genuine commitment to environmental responsibility.”

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.

For more information on sustainable coffee bags, contact our team

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Janice Kanniah
Janice Kanniah

Janice is freelance writer based in South Africa and has written for MTPak Coffee since 2020. Her interests are in writing about sustainability, the circular economy, and the future of the environment.

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