What to consider when switching to compostable coffee bags

Holly Szakal
April 24, 2024
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Research shows that more consumers are aware of the social and environmental ramifications of coffee production and packaging. Over time, coffee businesses have had to reassess their practices, with a significant focus being placed on packaging. As a result, traditional plastics are being replaced by sustainable alternatives, such as compostable coffee bags. 

However, as with any major business shift, the transition to compostable coffee bags is not without complexities. During packaging changes, it’s essential to maintain the authenticity and quality of the product. Beyond this, it’s important to communicate packaging changes to avoid confusion among consumers. 

So, how can coffee brands navigate the increasing consumer demand for sustainability while upholding their brand integrity? To gain a better understanding, I spoke to Rafael Bravo of Mexico City-based CUMBÉ Coffee Roasters, Hugh Kelly, Head of Coffee at Canberra-based ONA Coffee, and Jo Lopez, a specialty barista at Intermission Coffee

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Challenges faced when switching to compostable coffee bags

A primary concern for brands switching to compostable coffee packaging materials is product freshness. The step toward sustainability cannot mean compromising the quality of the coffee. Designed with sustainability in mind, the bags are designed to break down naturally into organic matter when disposed of correctly and exposed to the right conditions. 

Unlike traditional plastic packaging, which can pollute the environment for decades, compostable coffee bags mitigate pollution and contribute to soil health when adequately disposed of. Additionally, compostable materials help align with promoting a circular economy, where waste is minimised and resources are reused or regenerated. 

Several brands have transitioned to compostable packaging to ensure a commitment to sustainability while offering exceptional-quality coffee. Speaking to several coffee establishments, it’s evident that adaptation is key without losing exceptionality. 

Hugh Kelly from ONA Coffee is helping the brand find the ideal coffee packaging solution that not only complies with the country’s new regulations but also echoes its unwavering commitment to promoting a circular economy. He reveals some of the drawbacks he’s experienced while navigating the brand’s continuous sustainability efforts. 

“When we tested oxygen levels, they were a lot higher in many of the compostable coffee bags we used,” he says. “Even after a normal window of ageing, we found we were already smelling oily characteristics typical of over aged and oxidised coffee before we even cupped. These coffees tasted dry, lacked texture, and the overall quality didn’t match our expectations of each coffee,” he adds.  

Hugh stresses the importance of ensuring compostable materials are able to keep the quality of the coffee at its absolute peak. Beyond this, he advises brands to confirm the materials adhere to modern sustainable expectations. “At ONA Coffee, we have every intention of becoming as eco-friendly as possible. [The brand is] testing multiple combinations of packaging and looking far and wide for the perfect solution.” 

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The role of compostable coffee bags in a circular economy

A recent report revealed that 78% of consumers admitted sustainability is important to them. Notably, 84% admitted that poor environmental ethics would turn them away from making a purchase. Compostable coffee bags could solve several government regulations posed by traditional packaging materials such as petroleum-based plastics.

Rafael Bravo of CUMBÉ Coffee Roasters shares the advantages he’s observed since transitioning to more sustainable coffee bags at his café. “At CUMBÉ, it’s [essential] to have [a positive] impact on every step of the coffee chain,” he says. “We use bags that are biodegradable in 180 days. The packaging design and all product information printed on the bags are created using vegan ink.

“In Mexico, very few companies use this material because the cost is higher, but we believe the effort to generate a positive impact on the environment by generating less ash is worthwhile,” he adds. CUMBÉ’s commitment to eco-conscious packaging not only resonates with environmentally conscious consumers but also sets a positive example for the entire industry.

Moreover, by prioritising sustainability throughout the coffee chain, from sourcing to packaging, CUMBE Coffee Roasters has strengthened its brand reputation and garnered increased loyalty from customers who value socially responsible businesses.

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Factors to consider when investing in compostable coffee bags

Several key factors must be considered when transitioning to compostable coffee bags to ensure sound integration. For example, variations in material composition, thickness, and oxygen barrier properties can impact the freshness and shelf life of the coffee. Conducting comprehensive testing helps identify the most suitable compostable materials that align with the business’s specific requirements and maintain product quality.

Certification and labelling properties also play a crucial role in establishing the credibility of compostable coffee bags. Brands must ensure the compostable coffee bags maintain the integrity and freshness of the roast, and communicate the environmental benefits with full transparency. 

Last, effective communication with consumers is vital during the transition to sustainable packaging. Customers should be informed about why the change has been implemented as well as the proper processes for disposal. Proactively educating consumers about any business changes and the benefits of compostable packaging, as well as providing clear instructions on proper disposal methods, helps alleviate concerns and garner support for sustainable initiatives. 

Transparent communication fosters trust and loyalty among customers, reinforcing the brand’s commitment to environmental responsibility. Jo Lopez, a London-based specialty barista, emphasises the importance of educating customers on effectively recycling compostable coffee bags. 

“For decades, plastic was the main character and first pick when it came to selecting packaging for coffee,” he says. “In this day and age, the industry is in constant development and research of new alternatives for a better and more efficient way to pack coffee without losing quality or that ‘premium’ feel on their bags.”

Jo agrees that one of the biggest issues with compostable packaging is a “lack of information and how little people really know about it. Customers being misinformed is the most problematic side of this packaging, as [they may] react in a negative way to new colours, textures, and looks of the packaging,” he explains. “Especially if they don’t really understand why the change was made in the first place or even the benefit of it, and it will even slow down sales in the short run.” 

He says it is critical to communicate to customers why the change of packaging or pricing has been done. This can help them understand how it benefits the shop, them as consumers, and the environment.

“There’s still a [while before] we can fully move to compostable materials in all areas involved in a coffee business, but it is up to us to keep pushing for these alternatives and making sure to give the right information to customers,” Jo adds.

At MTPak Coffee, our kraft paper and PLA packaging options are certified by TÜV Austria as OK compost HOME and OK compost INDUSTRIAL, while our degassing valves are also fully compostable.

Images courtesy of CUMBÉ Coffee Roasters and Intermission Coffee

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Holly Szakal
Holly Szakal

Holly Szakal is a Melbourne-based copy and content writer and is deeply immersed in her city's vibrant specialty coffee culture. She infuses the rich aromas of the specialty coffee scene by delivering compelling narratives on the industry's current events.

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