The Ups & Downs of Coffee Packaging
An update in our quest for sustainable coffee packaging.
Our current bag manufacturer has discontinued the 1kg bags we have been using and that set us on a quest to find a good and sustainable replacement option.
Here is the short version of the story:
250g (bags in use since the beginning)
made by TekPak Solutions in Canada
material is omnidegradable®, breaks down completely in the presence of microbes in water and soil with only water, CO 2, and a small amount of organic biomass remaining
end of use recommendation: general waste or home composting
reasons to be ok with it: innovative and viable solution for plastic pollution, great quality & protective properties with resealable zipper and aroma valve
reasons to keep working on it: material still contains petroleum based plastic, there is no UK distributor and we have to order it in Canada directly and have it flown over to the UK
use at Kontext Coffee Co.: retail and wholesale
600g (new replacement for omnidegradable® 1kg bags)
made by Sirane Ltd. in Telford, Shropshire here in the UK
material is paper with a plant based lining, certified plastic free and FSC certified
end of use recommendation: kerbside paper recycling anywhere
reasons to be ok with it: bags are made in the UK reducing the carbon footprint of the journey, made from sustainably sourced paper, plastic free and fully kerbside recyclable
reasons to keep working on it: no aroma valve or a zipper to reseal the bag, the aroma barrier is ok but not as efficient as the one in the 250g bags which is why we have decided to reduce the shelf life recommendation to 8 weeks instead of 6 months
use at Kontext Coffee Co.: retail only, recommended use as a refill option for an airtight reusable container such as this one ;)
Interested to learn more? Here is the full story:
In our previous deep dive into packaging materials and waste management (read more) we have given you a detailed report of our journey in finding the most sustainable way to wrap up our beautifully tasty coffees for you. Back in 2019 when Kontext Coffee Co. was born Katja, Kontext's founder, spent a tremendous amount of time and effort to make sure we get this right and we landed on the omnidegradable® coffee bags produced by Canadian manufacturer and packaging innovator TekPak Solutions. These guys 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. From the beginning we used their 250g pouches and 1kg side gusset bags and we are still very happy with the quality of these bags. The labels we use on our bags are made form uncoated matt wood-free printing paper - 95% sugar cane fibres and 5% of hemp and linen with a permanent acrylic based biodegradable and compostable adhesive.
In the meantime TekPak have unfortunately stopped producing the 1kg bags. And so we had to go back to the research desk and start over. The type of packaging most commonly used for coffee is usually a compound material, made of multiple layers, to guarantee that your freshly roasted coffee is protected from moisture and oxygen to maintain its quality. For this type of packaging the biggest challenge is how to properly dispose of it when it comes to its end of use.
Just a quick review of the UK's waste management system to bring you up to speed on our conundrum with regards to different packaging options - bear with us on this if you will:
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.
Compostable packaging - will break down into non-toxic organic residue if disposed of properly, meaning it needs to end up in facilities capable of processing it 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 composting 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.
Recyclable packaging - 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.
Everything else - realistically speaking, most of the coffee packaging in the UK will end up in the landfill. With the omnidegradable® bags that is not an issue because even in the landfill microbes are present and the special compound added to the material will help it break down into non-toxic elements within a reasonable timeframe (~ 20 months on average). Any conventional plastic will take decades if not centuries to break down and the process will most likely result in microplastic and toxic pollutants. And even compostable materials need specific conditions to decompose which aren't always met in the landfill.
Our solution for this problem (for now and until better solutions become available):
The criteria our coffee packaging needs to meet:
material has to be as sustainable as possible
aroma barrier to protect coffee quality
ideally resealable for easy use and best shelf life
easy, sustainable disposal for customers at home
For our 250g bags we will stick with TekPak's omnidegradable® bags. They meet all the criteria except for the fact that they are still made from petroleum based, non-renewable materials.
Since we can't get any 1kg bags from TekPak anymore and we haven't managed to find a 1kg replacement that meets the criteria above, we are switching to 600g bags made in the UK, made out of paper and plant materials from sustainable sources. They are completely kerbside recyclable and do have a decent inner lining to protect our coffee quality. The only downside here is that they are not resealable and the material isn't as dense as the omnidegradable® material which affects the shelf life (8 weeks instead of 6 months). We therefore recommend to use these bags as refill options for your airtight coffee containers at home. If you haven't got one yet, check out our AIRSCAPE® containers and for a limited time only we are running a promotion bundle as well!
To forego this topic altogether, we can refill your coffee containers if you live nearby and want to buy from us at the roastery directly - you will even get your coffee at a discount rate! We supply some of our wholesale customers with bulk containers which we swap out with every delivery and are always happy to talk about individual packaging-free solutions on a case to case basis.
For us, this topic is very much an ongoing quest and we will be revisiting it on a regular basis. We look at our current packaging as the best solutions we can offer right now, in the hopes that in the medium and long term there will be better (in terms of quality) and even more sustainable (from renewable sources) solutions available.