On sustainable packaging for roasted coffee

On sustainable packaging for roasted coffee
The dilemma of roasted coffee packaging 
Every roaster and product developer knows the dilemma - which kind of packaging to choose and develop for their product? We as a coffee roastery have been wrestling with this topic ever since we started. As a start-up roastery, or as someone who has been in the business for a long time wanting to make a change, there is an enormous amount of information available about compostable, recyclable, and natural packaging materials. 
It is not news that changes need to be made quickly to mitigate the damage being done to the planet, and businesses are finally waking up by making sustainable and responsible choices in respect of their operations, design and products. Our values represent transparent, fair business and sustainability, which means we also take our packaging very seriously. The following is what we have learnt in our ongoing mission to pack our roasted coffee responsibly.
Roasted coffee is often sold to consumers in 250g, 500g and 1kg bags, with materials varying from plastic to paper, and from compostable materials to natural resources. Aside from keeping the coffee fresh and protected, the customer experience also needs to be considered, the handling and filling of the bag needs to be fast and easy, and the production of it needs to be guaranteed. So - what to choose? 
Recyclable is good, right? May a compostable item be a long-term investment?
Recycling has been one step towards a circular economy (an economy where all packaging is 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable, and where governments and businesses both play a role in the end of life infrastructure and objectives), and away from the destructive linear economy, where items cannot be reused, recycled or properly repurposed after their singular usage. Recycling is good, but it’s not a silver bullet for sustainability, and there is no one size fits all solution to sustainable packaging.
Recyclable packaging is a popular choice, perhaps because of its practicality. Many small towns have plastic collection points and western countries usually take good care of their recycling processes. With this in mind, a lot of roasters seem to be opting for 100% plastic solutions. Our concern is that, as far as we are aware, the 100% plastic options that are currently on the market are made of virgin plastic as opposed to recycled plastic, and we just can’t get on board with a solution that creates more plastic in the world. We also suspect that, despite best intentions, a large number of plastic bags are not recycled, and end up in the general waste bin then onto landfill. In my home country of Finland, some smaller communities do not recycle their plastics at all (some cabin communities by the 1,000 lakes which Finland has, for example, decide not to pay the higher garbage pick up fee for the recyclable plastic). I’m sure that other communities, especially rural ones, do not recycle their plastic waste regularly.
Composting means an organic process of biodegradation of a material or product. For an item to be classified as compostable, it must break down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass in a given timeframe. Depending on the certification agency, this is 90-180 days. This rate is similar to items you might see in a home compost, such as leaves and food scraps. 
We asked our compostable packaging partner, Grounded Packaging, what they think about choosing between different materials for the coffee packaging: 
‘Composting, whether through industrial or home composting, are good options for recycling. It is the closest thing we can do to a circular economy, if done properly. The issue is when people are not educated in how to dispose of the compostables, or it is too difficult to do so and it ends up in landfill - although the packaging will break down, it will release methane gas which is an issue if there is no methane capture in the landfill’
‘As a roastery owner, you need to look at sustainability as a whole picture, and specifically who your clients are. The key is trying to eliminate risk by educating clients and choosing the right packaging for them - in many cases we’ve suggested a multi-material approach. Different materials for different clients, from wholesale, to customers in cities or rural areas” - Max, Grounded Packaging
What is our approach to sustainable coffee packaging?
We have always said that our packaging isn’t perfect, and that we will look to lessen its impact where viable alternatives present themselves. Our current line of packaging uses a material called Biotre 1.0, 60% of which is composed of plant based materials. The other 40% is polyethylene treated with an additive that allows it to “oxo-degrade” over 5-10 years, as opposed to the estimated 1,000 years needed for normal plastic. The zip and valve are made of plastic, and should be removed and recycled prior to composting the rest of the bag. Alongside this, we have decided to trial a new bag made by Grounded Packaging that is instead made of 90-95% plant based resources, including the zip and valve. The bag is designed to be commercially composted, but Mike has also been running a trial in his home hot-composter, and after 20 weeks there was no discernible trace of the bag. Our approach is to hope for the best (the bags are disposed of by way of commercial or home composting), but to prepare for the worst (the bags are thrown in the bin, in which case they will at least break down far more quickly than the plastic alternatives).
Why are we not replacing our entire packaging with this new product?
We need to see how these new bags perform out there in the wild. So far the signs are very encouraging. The bags look incredible, the coffee is well protected, still tastes great after many weeks in the bag, and feedback from our customers has been positive across the board. The danger with any biodegradable material is that it starts to break down whilst it is still here in storage with us at the roastery prior to its intended usage. There is no evidence yet that this will be the case, but we need to make sure before we incur considerable expenditure in replacing our entire packaging line.
For the time being only our orange 250g bags are made from this new material. If you have bought coffee in one of these bags we would love to hear your feedback, or any other thoughts you have regards the topics discussed in this article.