Kati Randell

Sustainable Coffee Packaging: Why Aren’t All Coffee Packages Biodegradable?

In general, coffee lovers would like to see as little packaging material as possible. Could all plastic packaging be developed to be biodegradable?

Biodegradable packages are manufactured from material that bacteria or fungi can break down into water, carbon dioxide and biomass. This degradation requires specific conditions – usually, industrial composting with all the right microbes present, a sufficiently high temperature and an adequate length of time. In order to be classified as biodegradable, 90% of the material must decompose within three months in industrial conditions.

Why don’t we have packages that degrade quickly?

Studies show that most consumers believe that if packaging material is marked “biodegradable”, it will degrade in nature or the sea. This is not entirely the case, however. Decomposition in nature takes a long time – several months or even years. During this time, with bad luck, animals will eat the non-degraded material or become entangled in it.

This past summer we learned again from the news that the trash vortexes in the oceans keep on growing. The characteristics that make plastic a great packaging material – lightness and durability – are bad qualities in the sea. So why not develop packages that degrade quickly in nature or even the sea?

A coffee package, for instance, must protect coffee from external moisture and oxygen for 12 months. A package with these characteristics cannot decompose quickly even in an industrial compost, let alone by the side of a road or in an ocean. Few people know that even banana peels take 1–3 years to decompose!

What is the actual environmental impact of a coffee package?

A coffee package’s carbon footprint only makes up about three per cent of the carbon footprint of the production and preparation chain of filter coffee. If the packaging breaks it is not just the package that goes to waste but the entire coffee chain: nine months of cultivation, the processing, transportation overseas, roasting and packaging. We have lost the precious raw materials and the enjoyment of the wonderful flavours!

Carbon footprint coffee
Carbon footprint from Costa Rican coffee (Killian et al., Journal of Agricultural Science and Technology 2012)

Recovery of plastic packages is everything

However, the only visible, concrete thing that consumers are left with after the coffee itself has been consumed is the packaging. And many consumers are not sure what to do with empty packages.

In Finland, over 500 sorting stations for plastic packaging have been established over the past year (read more about packing recycling in Finland). This makes an empty package not just waste but – depending on the structure – a valuable raw material for new plastic products or energy for district heating and electricity. If you do not have sorting station or bin for plastic near you, you can put coffee packages to mixed waste. Mixed waste collected from consumers is used as a source of energy.

So, plastic is very versatile! First it functions as packaging and then it can be made into another product or used as a source of energy. Using the same raw material twice is a smart thing to do and luckily this is now possible with packaging.

Plastic packaging is not an evil that pollutes nature and the seas all by itself – it ends up there as a result of our actions and because of inadequate sorting. Correctly sorted and treated, plastic packaging can be reused as energy and, in some cases, as new products or even soil.

Packages made of renewable raw materials with renewable energy

Paulig’s Vuosaari Roastery in Helsinki runs entirely on renewable energy and, in the countries of origin, we advise coffee growers on sustainable farming methods. Could we further reduce our climate impact with packaging?

The carbon footprint of foods mainly originates from the production phase. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that the valuable product will not spoil after being packaged. Our packages are designed to be durable, but even they sometimes break before ending up in consumers’ kitchens. This year, we commissioned an extensive study to find out what causes vacuum coffee bags to break, and we are now planning corrective actions for our packaging lines and the logistic chain.

A new plant-based laminate in test use

Coffee requires tightly sealable packaging that protects it from e.g. oxygen, so it is extremely challenging to replace plastic made of fossil raw materials. We have now finally discovered a laminate that uses plastic made from a renewable raw material. This raw material is plant-based and, as the plant grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air. This means that the carbon footprint of the laminate is considerably lower than that of traditional plastic laminate.

We have now tested this laminate successfully on a small scale, with more extensive testing to continue during the autumn. We are already looking forward to early 2018 when we hope to package the first product, Mundo, in this laminate.

Sustainable Coffee Packaging Kati Randell

The writer, Kati Randell, is a Senior Manager in Coffee Division's Strategic Package Development team.