February 8, 2022
The Nitty Gritty: What is sustainable packaging for the coffee industry?

Grounded Packaging is a supplier of compostable and recycled coffee packaging

Businesses often come to us wanting to be told what the 'right' solution is, and unfortunately, the answer to that is almost always 'it depends.' Everything has its pros and cons regardless of what people will tell you, and that extends to functionality, cost, and also sustainability factors like carbon footprint and end-of-life.

From a purely sustainability perspective when we look at material solutions we evaluate two core factors.


We calculate the carbon footprint of each packaging solution from raw materials, manufacturing, and transport up until the point of sale based on the emissions generated by:

  • Material sourcing / extraction
  • Land-use change
  • Energy used in the manufacturing process
  • Transportation


The circularity score evaluates the amount of renewable and/or recycled content that goes into the manufacturing of a particular material, and the likelihood or opportunity that the product gets effectively dealt with at its end-of-life.

Most businesses (and their customers) tend to focus on only one part of that equation, that being the 'end-of-life' component. Consumers, in particular, are heavily focused on that end-of-life piece and 'compostable' generally carries some pretty heavily favorable connotations but that alone doesn't consider the nuances.

Circular considerations

Both composting and recycling are critically important in the development of a functioning circular economy. One is not more important than the other but they both have use cases where one is better suited.

At Grounded we believe that compostable materials are particularly well suited to products that leave considerable contamination and as such would exclude them from a recycling process.

Primarily this is in the food space, takeaway food service, pouches/bag/trays for fresh meats, premade meals, alternative proteins, etc. We tend to favor recyclable solutions that are manufactured from recycled and/or bio-based materials for other cleaner product streams like e-commerce, retail, and certain dry goods, etc.

Coffee bag material options

To aid our customers to navigate what solution is right for them, Grounded has developed a guide with a focus on three materials we believe are the most interesting for the coffee industry.

Different materials for sustainable coffee packaging

Note this is a general commentary on the pros and cons but in terms of end-of-life, there are practical challenges that currently exist for all of them.

Designing for circularity isn't a guarantee that the packaging ends up in the right spot. The reality is that when using sustainable coffee packaging, assuming a large proportion of your customers are cafes and restaurants, you will need to work with your customers to develop a collection system that is achievable for all materials.

Carbon footprint
Pile of carbon charcoal

For the purposes of this article, we haven't included carbon footprint in the above table in order to review each accurately as there are a number of distinct assumptions we need to make (not to mention, at present our ability to accurately model the Plantcell barrier paper is still in development as I write this). As such we have just shown some data models to give an idea of what we look for on a per material basis and how the data moves with different end-of-life scenarios.

Currently, we offset all carbon emissions from production and logistics for our customers so this piece is potentially less relevant (you can obviously offset yourselves too) but irrespective of that we're of the opinion that you want to move towards lower carbon materials & systems.

Circularity score

MCI stands for Material Circularity Indicator and it is typically measured on a scale of 0-1 but we find it easier to digest in percentage form hence the numbers in the table and in the graphic above. The goal is to get as close as possible to 100%, or 1, as possible.

Strategic approach

At Grounded, we are encouraging businesses to explore multi-material strategies, rather than a one size fits all approach.

Examining the relevant considerations for each channel/customer/product set provides a more robust framework to make an informed decision based on each one. I do appreciate that it is not always easiest from a brand messaging standpoint - but if sustainability is a key driver, unfortunately, there is not one 'right' solution (that currently exists).

We appreciate that this stuff isn't always the easiest to make decisions around but those are the considerations for all options as transparently as I can present them.

See our range of compostable and recycled coffee bags

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