A deep dive into packaging materials and waste management
Sustainability and outstanding quality are the single most important guiding principles at Kontext Coffee Company. Everything we do and everything we are trying to achieve is measured against these two principles. And so finding the right packaging for our coffees was a high priority topic from the beginning. To be able to make an informed decision on which coffee packaging would meet our criteria, we really took our time in researching what's out there - who would have thought a deep dive into the topics of waste management streams and chemical composition of different materials would be an integral part of starting a coffee roasting business? Here is what we found:
Let's start by looking at the criteria our packaging needs to meet:
> Airtight, moisture resistant and non-transparent
To keep coffee fresh and preserve flavour and aroma, it is crucial to store it in a dark, dry, low oxygen environment. At the same time coffee degasses (releases CO2) for quite a while after roasting. That means suitable coffee packaging needs to be made of non-transparent material that won't let any oxygen in but features a one-way-valve that will let the CO2 out.
> Made from sustainable materials
Ideally we would love our packaging to be made from truly sustainable materials - but what does that actually mean? Turns out the only really environmentally friendly form of packaging is reusable packaging in the form of glass (best kept in a dark cupboard) or tin containers. We do give our customers the option to come by the roastery with your own containers if you live locally and we will refill them for you at a slightly reduced price. However, sustainability encompasses not only the environment but it also has an economic side. This type of packaging is rather expensive to buy in, requires a lot of storage space and increases transport costs. It comes with all sorts of logistical problems - how do you organize refills etc. Economically speaking, it doesn't seem a practical or viable solution for us. That brings us back to single use packaging. In the case of coffee, this type of packaging has to be a compound material, made of multiple layers, to guarantee that your freshly roasted coffee is protected from moisture and oxygen. For this type of packaging the biggest challenge is how to properly dispose of it when it comes to its end of use.
> Sustainable disposal option
With regards to disposable packaging there are basically three waste management streams packaging materials could potentially end up in: organic waste (compostable materials), recycling (recyclable materials) and general waste (landfill). Organic waste as well as recyclable materials have to meet certain criteria in order to be able to be processed in composting or recycling facilities and these criteria can differ depending on the waste management facilities they are being processed in. If they don't meet the criteria, they are sorted out and end up in the landfill.
Can you tell? It's starting to get tricky!
Let's look at recycling first: because of the compound (multiple layers) nature of coffee packaging it is difficult to recycle. The different layers of material have to be separated to be recycled properly and by far not all recycling facilities are equipped to do that. But even if we assume we are working with a fully recyclable material, this will entail plastic and can only be recycled so often until it can't. At that point it will end up in the environment in some form or other, clogging up the planet for centuries to come. How about biodegradable or compostable packaging then? Because of the quality criteria packaging for coffee needs to meet (remember: airtight, moisture resistant and non-transparent) some form of plastic will be involved in packaging it adequately to maintain quality. And while compostable and biodegradable materials will break down more easily, they will only do so if disposed of properly and end up in facilities that are able to process them - which is far from a given in the UK today. Up until 2016 an estimated 10 million tonnes of food waste went into the waste streams every year. Only about 1.8 million tonnes are being recycled in compostig or other processing facilities, the remaining 8.2 million tonnes end up in the landfill. One of the major reasons for this, is a lack of food waste collection on the communal level as the following graphic shows.
The graphic below gives an interesting insight into how the speed of degradation can vary depending on which material we look at and whether it ends up in an industrial composting facility or the ocean and can easily be extrapolated to conditions in a home compost heap (lower temperatures=slower degradation) or the landfill (lack of oxygen and light=extremely slow to no degradation at all).
In addition to the problem of whether these materials actually end up in the right environment for them to break down properly, there are also concerns surrounding the additives these materials contain to make them break down more easily. They can contaminate the different waste streams they end up in and we don't know enough about these materials and their long term impact yet to determine whether they really are less toxic for the environment than conventional plastic. A study on bio plastic films from cradle to grave was conducted by two US scientists and published in Scientific American magazine in August, 2000. It showed that these materials used 154 % more energy than regular plastic (PET) due to the fact that someone had to grow the corn, harvest it, transport it to the processing plant and transform it into resin. All of this begs the question of whether they can really be regarded as more sustainable in the end.
Time to look at the general waste stream aka everything that goes into the landfill. The issue with plastic-type materials in the landfill is fragmentation into micro plastic, that - as we are starting to realize - will make its way into ....everything really.... our oceans, our food chains, the air... . Most plastic also contains toxins as mentioned above that will leach into the soil, the groundwater and becomes an environmental hazard for long periods of time. Another big issue in landfills is that when organic material (compostable or biodegradables made of organic materials) is put in the landfill, it gets compacted and covered over time. In those lower layers less and less oxygen is present and the break down process becomes anaerobic which releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In more modern landfill facilities methane is captured and processed or used in ways that prevent it from getting into the atmosphere. Which brings us to the bottom line: what happens to the coffee packaging when the time comes for it to be discarded, vastly differs depending on whether it is properly disposed of and the type of waste management facility it ends up in and how they are equipped.
All in all, the question of what a good solution for packaging - not just for coffee, but in general - might look like and how it can be disposed of in a responsible way is really very complex and there doesn't seem to be a simple answer.
How are we meeting these challenges with our packaging at Kontext Coffee Company?
Based on everything we have learned about packaging and waste management, we decided to work with coffee bags (including sealing strip and degassing valve) that are made of an omnidegradable® material developed and produced by a Canadian company called TekPak Solutions. Its founder, Robert Pocius, has been working in the print and packaging industry for over 35 years and spent the last 10 years researching sustainable packaging to develop a product that is functional AND sustainable. He and his team have developed a non-toxic, organic additive for plastic materials that reacts with microbes which are present in water and soil everywhere. The reaction creates an enzyme that can break the long-chain molecules in plastic into pieces small enough for the microbes to consume completely. What is left over is only water, CO 2, and a small amount of organic biomass which they have proven through independent scientific studies to be beneficial to plant growth. In other words, our coffee bags do not depend on water, heat, sunlight or oxygen to degrade - they will completely and safely biodegrade virtually anywhere, where microbes are present. They are recyclable in separate layers, compostable in industrial composting facilities that use windrows (open air composting) or under home composting conditions given time. And they will break down completely even in the worst case scenario that they might end up in the ocean or somewhere in the depth of a huge landfill pile refuse. Our labels are printed on woodfree paper that is made of by-products of the sugarcane production (95% of sugar cane fibres and 5% of hemp and linen) and the adhesive is acrylic based, biodegradable and compostable. Our bags have a stable shelf life and can be reused as well, if you decide to do so.
What's the take away from all this then?
It's not easy for consumers to determine what's important in terms of packaging for all the products they encounter and buy in daily life and even harder to determine how to get rid of it in an environmentally friendly way after it has served its purpose. The best way to deal with packaging is to avoid it whenever possible if you ask us! So if you do live in and around Monmouth, feel free to stop by the roastery with your coffee tin in hand to get a refill! If you can't avoid packaging, we hope sharing our research with you helps to shed some light on the pitfalls and we truly feel like we have done our best to find a solution to package our coffee with quality and sustainability in mind - and we hope you feel that way too.