Exploring the recyclability of foil coffee bags 

Nuvin Sithanen
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July 10, 2024
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In 1913, aluminium foil was traditionally found in commercial candy wrappers across the US. Today, it is often used to produce rigid, semi-rigid, and flexible packaging. Notably, foils have become a popular material for lining bags of ground or whole-bean coffee. 

That said, concerns around sustainable packaging continue to grow. As a result, many specialty coffee brands may wonder about the recyclability of foil coffee bags. While foil coffee bags and pouches have been used for a long time, much has changed over the years, and more eco-friendly materials have become more accessible. 

So, how recyclable are foil coffee bags? And what can brands do to make it easy for consumers to dispose of them responsibly?

Read on as Mike McKim, CEO and founder of Cuvée Coffee shares his thoughts. 

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Can you recycle foil coffee bags?

It’s important to remember that aluminium is mined. Therefore, it’s considered a finite resource that will eventually run out, making it an expensive option. Additionally, foil or plastic-lined coffee bags are unlikely to be recycled through the local council’s recycling programme, so they will have to be disposed of in the usual way, where it ends up in a landfill or being incinerated. 

Aluminium foil is typically processed into a very thin metal sheet and adhered to an outer packaging layer that is usually made of plastic, paper, or bioplastics, such as polylactic acid (PLA). The inner layer acts as a barrier, while the outer layer allows for customisation, such as printing the details of the coffee within. Beyond this, aluminium foil protects against light and moisture, is food-safe, lightweight, and will not corrode easily.

Cuvée Coffee claims to be Texas’ first craft coffee roaster and pioneers of nitro cold brew. Founder Mike believes that packaging is often the first interaction a consumer has with a coffee brand, and, therefore, plays a pivotal role in conveying brand identity, values, and quality.

“Foil-lined coffee bags have traditionally been recognised as the industry standard for preserving quality,” Mike explains. “They have a strong barrier that prevents oxygen, moisture, and UV light from degrading coffee quality.”

“While the foil barrier itself can be recycled, the external layers of packaging that allow for sealing, printing, and customisations make this barrier nearly impossible to dispose of sustainably,” Mike highlights. 

Therefore, empty foil coffee bags must be taken to a specialised recycling facility with equipment to separate the materials. However, customers are not always aware of these special requirements, which results in the aluminium foil coffee bags being disposed of incorrectly. Instead of going to a recycling facility, they may end up in landfills, where they break down and emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

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How to avoid greenwashing when using foil coffee bags

“We see greenwashing happen all the time in this industry,” Mike says. “It’s confusing for consumers and the brand, and to be frank, quite unfair. Saying a material is compostable when the valves are not, or stating a product is 60% biodegradable doesn’t help the planet in the end.”

Greenwashing refers to a practice in which organisations make unsubstantiated or exaggerated claims to portray an environmentally-friendly image. This is often in an attempt to win over consumers, divert attention, or improve its public standing.

It was coined by prominent environmentalist Jay Westerveld in a 1986 essay that criticised the implementation of reusable towels in the hotel industry. He saw that hotels were marketing their reusable towels as part of an environmental conservation effort, when, in reality, it was simply to save costs.

“It’s our responsibility as business owners in the consumer packaged goods space to set the standard for what is right,” Mik says. “Beyond this, we need to be honest, transparent, and keep the environment in mind.” As a result Cuvée Coffee is making a shift away from foil coffee bags to those made from single materials.

“The primary motivation for choosing mono-material packaging is to make recycling easier and more effective for consumers,” Mike explains. “This simplifies the recycling process while minimising waste and promoting sustainability.”

“As we were looking into ways to become more sustainable, making the switch to mono-material was the obvious choice. It not only resonates with environmentally-conscious consumers but also reduces our environmental footprint. Customers are encouraged to check with local recycling facilities for specific guidelines and drop-off locations, but we’re currently exploring offering drop-offs at our retail locations in addition to the move to recyclable materials,” he adds. 

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Sustainable alternatives to foil coffee bags

As the global population grows, so will the demand for flexible packaging, thanks to its functionality and accessibility. Flexible packaging uses fewer materials than other alternatives, with its packaging-to-product ratio 5 to 10 times lower than other options. If more brands switched to flexible packaging, it is estimated over 20 million tons of packaging materials could be saved in the EU alone.

Therefore, coffee brands that offer more eco-friendly packaging could sway consumers to choose their products over competitors. That said, a recent Greenpeace study revealed most materials end up being incinerated or dumped instead of recycled. This means the packaging coffee roasters choose to use should be as sustainable as possible. 

While foil is a valuable material for lining coffee bags, it has pitfalls that have made roasters seek alternatives. Many coffee roasters choose to use a polyethylene (PE) outer layer and a metalised polyethylene terephthalate (PET) inner layer. However, these materials are often bonded together with an adhesive, which makes them inseparable. A PLA lining may be a more environmentally friendly option. This bioplastic is free of toxins and made from renewable resources such as corn and maize. 

Additionally, PLA offers a strong barrier against high temperatures, moisture, and humidity, and is able to break down in a commercial composting environment. When used to line a coffee bag, PLA can help extend the lifespan of the product by up to a year.

Mike explains that Cuvee Coffee strives to be environmentally conscious and makes every effort to offer the most sustainable solutions for its customers. 

“We’ve been hesitant in the past to try out other sustainable options because of the impact they have on shelf life, quality, or any confusion it may give the consumer,” Mike says. “We believe in recyclability because of how easy it is for the consumer to understand and the ability it has to preserve the quality of our products. We want Cuvee Coffee to be known for our excellent coffee and all the extra efforts we make in inclusivity, diversity, and sustainability.”

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of 100% recyclable coffee packaging options made from renewable materials such as kraft paper, rice paper, or multilayer LDPE packaging with an environmentally friendly PLA lining, all of which minimise waste and contribute to a circular economy.

MTPak Coffee also offers low minimum order quantities (MOQs) to micro-roasters who are looking to remain agile while showcasing brand identity and a commitment to the environment.

For more information on sustainable coffee bags, contact our team

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Nuvin Sithanen
Nuvin Sithanen

Nuvin is a specialty coffee professional with experience in a variety of sectors in the industry, including green coffee sourcing and coffee equipment distribution. He is actively involved in the South African coffee industry, providing coffee beans and equipment to both home baristas and businesses.

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