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Is Your Coffee Packaging Earth-Friendly?

And what to do with it once you know.

by Ever Meister | April 07, 2022

One of the many things that make having a Trade subscription so fun is that it gives you a chance to see a lot of different types of coffee packaging from roasters all over the United States. The wide variety of color choices, logos, labels, descriptions, and materials are part of what makes each coffee company unique and special, reflecting its personality and even its vision.

Of course, the downside to all these coffee bags is, well, what the heck do you do with them? Throw them away? Recycle them? Put them in the compost? (We think you should use them to start a coffee-bag scrapbook as a souvenir of your coffee subscription service, but that’s just us.)

Packaging for roasted coffee has come under close consideration in the past few years, as more and more roasters are seeking to reduce their carbon footprint and adopt sustainable practices as well as products. In honor of Earth month, we’ll take a look at some of the factors that go into the design of coffee packaging and offer some insight into the question of sustainability and those beautiful bags of beans.

When choosing a packaging material for roasted coffee, companies are seeking a few different key elements: Specifically how effective the material is at blocking moisture, oxygen, and light. These are the main components to creating a bag that preserves coffee’s quality, preventing the roasted beans from molding, staling, and even going rancid. Beyond the question of quality, then, the roaster needs to evaluate factors like the customizability of the bag, how it displays on a shelf, how costly it is, what the minimum order size is, what’s the lead time on orders, and so on.

As with most things in life, the complex nature of all of these different needs and wants means that there’s almost no “perfect” solution to the question of packaging.

For one thing, the most effective barriers against oxygen, moisture, and light have historically been a combination of aluminum foil and petroleum-based polyester (poly) or polyethylene terephthalate (PET); while they keep coffee fresher longer than bags without them, none of these are recyclable or compostable, winding up in landfills instead.

In recent years, strides have been made to create alternative materials with high barrier potential and less negative impact on the planet, such as corn, wood pulp, cellulose, and even durable paper made from invasive plant species. Many of these newer materials show great promise in studies of their oxygen transmission rate (OTR) and moisture vapor transmission rate (MVTR), some proving to have a barrier rate up to 70 percent as effective as conventional petroleum-based plastics and aluminum foil.

While these poly and PET alternatives sound like a silver-bullet solution, it’s unfortunately not as simple as that: Most of the plant-based bags include pieces that can’t be composted or recycled, such as one-way valves and tin tie or zipper closures. They also can’t be composted in home systems and instead require commercial composting, which isn’t available everywhere. To add to the confusion, bags labeled “oxo-degradable” aren’t necessarily better for the Earth — they still contain petroleum-based inputs, they just decompose faster.

Several packaging companies are hard at work to re-envision the future of coffee bags. MTPak in Shanghai, Elevate Packaging in Chicago, and TricorBraun Flex — makers of Biotrē™ in Washington state have all invested in research for the past several years, seeking the most sustainable combination of quality preservation and eco-friendly materials. While there isn’t a 100 percent proof-positive option available on a large scale quite yet, it’s only a matter of time.

In the meanwhile, what can you do with all those bags?

First, check for a label on them that says whether the material is recyclable (which is somewhat unlikely) or compostable (more likely). If it specifies as compostable, there may be additional instructions either on the bag or on the roaster’s website, such as “remove the valve and the zipper before placing in commercial compost.” (As of right now, none of our roaster-partners have home-compost-safe bags — but that will change!) If the bag does specify that it’s recyclable, check the number inside the recycle logo to make sure that that material is acceptable to your local processing plant.

If the packaging doesn’t have any information about whether it can be treated as recyclable, compost, or landfill waste, don’t hesitate to contact the roaster and ask how the bags are best disposed of — and maybe let them know that you’d love to see them update their choice once there is a more viable and sustainable option. If you’re unsure what to do with the packaging, unfortunately it’s wisest to default to putting it in the trash: Placing nonrecyclable things in with your recyclables can contaminate the whole collection, which would divert otherwise recyclable products to the landfill along with the bag.

If this isn’t the Earth Day news that you wanted to read this year, don’t despair: Advances are being made in the world of sustainable coffee packaging, and it’s just a waiting game until there are more widely available, effective and eco-friendly coffee bags. In the meantime, it’s important to know what you can do with that gorgeous packaging (did we mention scrapbooking?) and we encourage you to continue to let your favorite roasters know that sustainable materials are important to you as a way of securing a long, healthy life for the planet and for coffee for eons to come.