In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the outlook for the coffee industry is as strong as ever. According to the International Coffee Organization, exports in the first eight months of the 2020/2021 coffee year (October 2020 – May 2021) increased to 87.3 million bags. The world’s go-to pick-me-up hot beverage has surely lifted many people’s spirits throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so.
But once you’ve downed your cup of joe, what happens to the packaging?
Typical coffee packaging is environmentally harmful, largely to its unfortunate legacy reliance on plastic. And the extent of the global plastic crisis underlines the dangers of using plastic in coffee packaging. Five trillion plastic bagsare used worldwide every year. The UN estimates up to 13 million metric tonnes of plastic leach into the ocean every year. Only about 9% of the plastic produced since 1950 has been recycled and returned to the economy. Plasticproduction is expected to rise at least fourfold between 2014 and 2050, but without comprehensive and large-scale intervention, there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
81% of consumers drank their coffee at home during the pandemic, which means there’s a lot more coffee packaging waste to go around. Given the aforementioned single digits percentage of plastic that becomes recycled, this presents a considerable opportunity to reduce packaging waste by using better, more eco-friendly coffee packaging.
All in all, it’s best to use 100% certified compostable bags that perform as well as conventional options. As you’ll seebelow, that’s not so easy, but it’s vital!
The Truth About Biodegradable Coffee Bags
Many of the currently available coffee bags marketed as biodegradable require extra work for disposal. To be clear, being biodegradable is not the same as being compostable. Biodegradable coffee bags might break down in nature but may take a long time (often years).
Only about 60% of the packaging material will break down for many of the most widely used so-called biodegradable coffee bags. The remaining 40% consists of non-biodegradable layers made from materials like polyethylene, plastic degassing valves, and sealing systems which must be removed before composting as they will contaminate the composting process.
And the trickery doesn’t end with the biodegradable label.
The Truth About So-Called Compostable Coffee Bags
Certain en vogue coffee packaging solutions are marketed as compostable, but the devil is in the details. It’sdangerous and deceptive to market compostable solutions that are not fully compostable. For instance, if a coffee bag uses a plastic liner that takes years to break down in nature, it’s not compostable.
The omission of details in compostable marketing is confusing and tricky for consumers to navigate. As a result, thewell-intended coffee roasters could inadvertently provide their customers with non-compostable packaging, causingfurther environmental problems and contamination of both compost systems and soil. Moreover, according to the Federal Trade Commission, “it is deceptive to make an unqualified degradable claim for items entering the solid wastestream if the items do not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal.”
“If a product is certified as compostable, the whole thing is compostable,” says Brenda Platt, co-director of the Institutefor Local Self-Reliance. “There’s no such thing as 80-percent compostable and 20-percent not. So either you’recompostable or not.”
As you can see, when it comes to claims of environmental friendliness, what you see is not always what you get.
Luckily, there is a better, more straightforward solution – truly 100% compostable coffee bags!
Sustainable Coffee Requires Eco-Friendly Packaging
The coffee supply chain is complex. For many coffee retailers, mainly organic and fair-trade coffee roasters, sustainable sourcing is crucial at every step! Finding eco-friendly packaging that authentically aligns with a sustainable brand promise has long been a challenge for coffee retailers.
Given coffee’s unique characteristics, coffee packaging requires durable, high-performance packaging. In addition,coffee beans are porous, so packaging must protect from moisture and oxygen for at least 12 months. Other externalinfluences must be avoided (like UV rays from sunlight) to maintain freshness and taste. Packaging must also be airtight, requiring a one-way degassing valve to release excess carbon dioxide after the beans are roasted.
And in a warming world, coffee production faces an uncertain future. According to a 2019 report, 60% of all wild coffee species could go extinct in the coming decades’ thanks to threats like climate change, deforestation, and the spread of pathogens and pests. By 2050, according to a 2019 projection, 75% of the land currently used to grow Arabica coffee – the most popular – will no longer be suitable for the crop if climate change continues on current trajectories.
Coffee is particularly sensitive to warming temperatures because it requires specific climatic conditions to grow properly. Arabica, for example, thrives at temperatures between 64° and 70°F on mountainside farms ranging from 1,800 to 6,300 feet above sea level. As a result, most Arabica coffee is grown by about 25 million smallholder farmers across the tropics, many of whom rely on small coffee orchards to make a living. However, the geography of high-altitude regions makes large-scale production implausible. Moreover, as warming temperatures force coffee to be grown further upslope, the amount of land suitable for growing coffee will keep thinning.
Sustainable coffee production can mitigate the threats posed by climate change. Low-tech fixes can help farmers maintain yields without compromising on quality. For instance, some farmers are planting larger trees to shade the smaller coffee plants growing underneath. Lower soil temperatures – brought about by planting quick-growing shade trees like banana or macadamia and grasses – also help.
But a threat as global and volatile as the climate crisis requires a synergistic approach to keeping the coffee industry safe and sound well into the future. So in 2012, a consortium of coffee companies and organizations launched World Coffee Research (WCR) to incentivize collaborative solution-finding within the coffee industry. WCR is a nonprofit focused on researching and developing agricultural innovations to help the global coffee crop become more resilient to ensure supply can meet ballooning demand.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to making sure everyone can enjoy a cup of joe down the road. Nonetheless, it’sclear that a collaborative, can-do approach focused on sustainability is essential for all parties involved, from the smallholder farmers who harvest the crop to the specialty roasters who sell you the premium-tasting coffee you’ve come to expect.
And those roasters need more than good beans. They also need sustainable coffee bags with no compromises.
The Most Sustainable Coffee Bag
What does a truly sustainable coffee bag look like? Every component, including the degassing valve and reclosablezipper, must be compostable. Compostable bags require high-performance technologies for both oxygen and water/moisture protection, replacing the need for plastic coffee bags. Unlike many other coffee bags marketed as biodegradable or compostable, they should not have any extraneous parts that must be removed to be properly compostable. And this must all be achieved without compromising the high performance of conventional plastic high-barrier film pouches used in premium specialty coffees.
Using compostable packaging helps coffee production in many ways. First, compost reduces the need for expensive and environmentally harmful fertilizers, which presents an avoided headache for cost-conscious smallholder farmers. Second, Composting crucially enhances soil health by reducing wind and water erosion, improves water absorption (and thus lessening the need for irrigation), boosts carbon sequestration, and can help rejuvenate depleted soils. Given the need for more resilient coffee production as temperature and precipitation patterns change, these benefits should not be overlooked.
But perhaps the most significant benefit of composting at every level of the coffee supply chain goes beyond facts and figures. Composting honors the hard work of those who pour blood, sweat, and tears into growing great-tasting coffee and honors the planet whose bounty enables us to start our days with such an invigorating and flavorful drink.
If you’re wondering how you can pitch in, coffee grounds can be composted! They’re high in nitrogen and other vital trace elements, making coffee grounds and compostable packaging great additions to your composting pile.