August 22, 2023
The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Coffee Bags: Part 1
Understanding sustainable materials and considerations

Coffee has a remarkable ability to bring people together, transcending boundaries and culture. At Grounded Packaging, we've had the privilege of collaborating with exceptional specialty coffee businesses across the globe. Our experiences have led us to create “The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Coffee Bags,” a resource designed to equip coffee roasters with the tools and insights to approach sustainable packaging. In Part 1, we delve into sustainable materials and the key considerations to guide your decision making process. The ultimate aim is to provide the data and tools to faciliate better decisions, and to try and bring some transparency to what can be a challenging spaces.

What's the most sustainable coffee packaging?
A blue recycled plastic polymer

This is probably the most common question we get asked. Unfortunately, the answer isn't as straightforward as we'd like it to be. The truth is, the answer is always 'it depends', and it depends on quite a number of things, like:

  • Location: Where you are in the world
  • Customers: Who your audience is
  • Product types and sizes: The specific coffee products you sell
  • Waste management infrastructure: Availability of localized waste management systems
  • Business size and sales channel: Your business's scale and distribution channels

Importantly it also requires that you understand these considerations and the sustainability data around different materials + supply chains, and that you pick what is most important to you as a business. There is no silver bullet. But there is better and worse (and there is a wrong way!).

The coffee industry has historically prioritized long shelf life and ultra-high barriers to oxygen (OTR - Oxygen Transmission Rate) and moisture (MVTR - Moisture Vapor Transmission Rate), often at the expense of the environment. However, like other industries, it's time for a change.

Five sustainability data points that matter most for coffee packaging

Sustainability in coffee packaging is nuanced, it's more than simply being 'biodegradable' or whether it can be recycled or composted. At Grounded, we look at five key metrics to understand the impact of a particular material or packaging solution. See our complete guide here.

Five sustainability data points that matter most for coffee packaging: Design & material use, Carbon footprint, Reliance on virgin fossil fuel, End-of-life design, Circularity (MCI)

It is essential to base your sustainable packaging decisions on data, not guesswork. Most commonly businesses tend to focus on one of the below:

  • Carbon
  • Circularity
  • End-of-life

We believe circularity, in particular the MCI score, to be the single most important metric to look at as this encompasses the most important components; upstream manufacturing + material considerations, and also end-of-life treatment (recycling composting etc).

Table 2: Circularity Comparison: MCI Scores for Post-Consumer Recycled Laminate, Home Compostable Transparent Laminate, Recycled Biobased Transparent Laminate (Source: Scope, 2023).

For table 2: The MCI is scored on a scale of 0-100, with 0 being entirely linear i.e. made entirely from virgin materials and designed to be used once and sent to landfill, and 100 being perfectly circular i.e. being made from 100% recycled or renewable material and being able to be recycled back into itself (or composted) in perpetuity.

What are the different types of materials to consider.

At Grounded, we are focused on developing the next generation of packaging materials to replace virgin plastics and we have a number of different types of sustainable materials for coffee bags.

The next generation of packaging materials to replace plastic.

There is no right or wrong when it comes to sustainable packaging, but there is better and worse. Different businesses have different considerations when it comes to sustainability and our approach is an agnostic one, working exclusively with the future of packaging materials.

Different sustainable packaging materials for coffee: Bio-based compostable, Bio-based recyclable, Post-consumer recycled plastic, High barrier paper & fibre
All of those different materials have different considerations.
Considerations for different sustainable coffee packaging materials: MOQ, Shelf Life, End of life, Pricing, Max. weight tolerance level, Print method, Colours, Sustainability, & FDA food contact approval
Common coffee pouch formats available.

There are a number of different styles of coffee pouches / bags that are common throughout the industry. All have slightly different material, price and functionality considerations.

Common sustainable coffee pouch formats available: Stand up pouch, Flat bottom pouch, Quad seal pouch, Side gusset pouch, Rollstock

See part two of this guide for a more in depth breakdown of considerations by format and material.

Compostable coffee bags vs recyclable coffee bags: Which is better?

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:

  • Compostable materials are particularly well suited to products that leave considerable contamination and as such would exclude them from a recycling process. These materials are ideal for the food industry, takeaway food service, pouches/bag/trays for fresh meats, premade meals, alternative proteins, etc.
  • Recyclable solutions made from recycled and/or bio-based materials are preferred for cleaner product streams like e-commerce, retail, and certain dry goods, etc.

In the table below we have compared two of our most common coffee pouch materials (home compostable against post-consumer recycled) side by side, across two important sustainability metrics; carbon and circularity. The post-consumer recycled is a clear winner in terms of carbon footprint but the home compostable wins in the circularity metrics. Unfortunately there is no clear winner, but importantly both are dramatically better than virgin plastics.

Circularity scores & carbon footprint for Flat bottom pouches for coffee packaging in Home compostable paper laminate vs Post-consumer recycled laminate

Table 5: Sustainability Comparison between Home Compostable and Post-Consumer Recycled Coffee Pouch Materials (Source: Scope, 2023).

Understanding End-of-Life

For most people the first thing they think about when you talk about 'sustainable packaging' - is whether something is recyclable or compostable. This is obviously an important consideration but unfortunately the reality is that for flexible packaging end-of-life streams are very challenging, and regardless of material they don't work well in most parts of the world, currently (although improvements are being made). Below we have looked at waste management data for the treatment of flexible pouches across three common coffee pouch materials; compostable, recyclable and a standard coffee pouch made from paper and plastic. For the purpose of this example we have looked at an order of 10,000 coffee bags.

Table 6: Comparison of Waste Management Challenges for Flexible Coffee Packaging Materials: Compostable, Recyclable and Paper-Plastic (Source: Scope, 2023).

You can see that overall recycling and composting rates are low but they still lead to a big improvement in waste to landfill and incineration.

The most important thing you can do as a responsible coffee roaster is to understand the waste-management systems available to your consumers and design for those. And to also then participate in pro-active collection schemes. If you can do both of those successfully it will lead to a dramatic improvement in recycling and composting rates.

Coffee packaging designs backed by sustainability data with Blueprint.

To aid businesses bridge the gap in their packaging development process we've developed a software tool called Blueprint. Designed to ease the process of understanding materials and to take the user through all the key considerations in sustainable packaging design. In the video below we've asked Co-Founder Ben Grant to demonstrate how a (coffee business could employ Blueprint).

It's evident that choosing the most sustainable packaging option depends on various factors unique to each coffee business. By evaluating the key sustainability metrics we've highlighted above, businesses can navigate the complexities of sustainable packaging. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but by basing decisions on data and prioritizing circularity, you'll be able to chart a course towards packaging solutions that are designed to positively impact your business and the environment.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we will delve deeper into the practical limitations and design considerations for sustainable coffee packaging.

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