Are we getting closer to a bag that offers the benefits of modern packaging keeping our coffee beans fresh and dry which we can happily compost in our home garden?

Coffee packaging has an exalted position in the conjoined worlds of packaging and recycling. Not only do most designers and recyclers enjoy their coffee with fervour, but the coffee roasters are an enlightened bunch and are often keen to push the design envelope and make their bags better and more environmentally friendly.

The interest in coffee packaging was obvious in the recent Unpackit Packaging Awards: we had more nominations for coffee related packaging than any other product segment. With not a small amount of greenwashing going on it has aroused my interest and in this article I set out to see what the state of coffee packaging really is in NZ.

Some roasters provide their clients with reusable tins or buckets, which obviously trump any other single use packaging. Several coffee companies have cardboard or paper only packaging, while the environmental soundness is to be applauded it does not address the technical problem of keeping your beans airtight. A lot of coffee is sold off the supermarket shelf or shipped around the place, for that product a solution which is airtight and strong is required.

This isn’t an attempt to lay any blame on any ones shoulders. Packaging materials and manufacturing processes are always evolving and most business owners simply don’t have time to research things. Strangely the Internet makes this easier – and harder.

The main dilemma seems to be that new ‘biodegradable’ plastic films often only prove to be compostable under near laboratory conditions. Our domestic and industrial compost systems do not break the films down to usable plant matter, but reduce them to frankenstein fragments. Nobody quite understands what happens to them then, and how much you would like to have them travel with your veges into your dinner.

Conventional PE film

Due to the economics of sorting, baling and transporting. Many recycling centres can not take plastic film bags. The vast majority in NZ are therefore destined for the landfill. While we could argue till the cows get bored and leave about how bad landfill is – nobody can refute landfills are expensive to build and expensive to truck stuff to. We all pay for that either directly or through our rates.

Laminated plastic and paper

We have come across two varieties: one nice looking brown paper bag with wire tie and a laminated PE lining; the other which purports to have a ‘biodegradable’ plastic lining – which is however unsafe for domestic composts.

What we can say about these? Bond thin layers of paper to plastic and neither can be recycled easily. And ‘biodegradable’, but not in domestic composts, is not real ‘biodegradable’ at all in a country where most of us do not have access to a municipal industrial (high controlled heat and aeration) composting system.

EPI plastic film

Oxo-Biodegradable film is marketed in NZ by a few manufacturers. EPI is an international source of the metal salts based additives manufacturer add to their base plastic. The additive speeds up the natural breakdown of PE and PP plastics with the main benefit being they fragment in a short time frame and become invisible to the human eye. There is some conjecture as to how practical this is in the waste stream:

  • Oxo-Biodegradable plastics can not be recycled alongside normal plastic films and are hard to recognise and sort from the majority. They can pollute the usable waste stream
  • Without oxygen they do not degrade, so in landfill where most of it ends up Oxo-Biodegradable is not better than any other plastic
  • There is some concern that the tiny fragments the plastic breaks down into will mix with soil and create something nasty with numerous arms and legs. If people are not confident they can compost in their home compost – is it really a useful step forward?

Econic by Convex

A newcomer to the market Convex is a kiwi company with an exciting new product, their first coffee customer is Tradeaid.

These film bags combine a layer of cellulose with one of non-GMO corn starch, there is a layer of aluminium oxide between the layers and they are using compostable dies. I contacted Convex and they are very responsive and open about the product. Read the thread below for more info:

G – Would you recommend people putting your Econic bags into their domestic garden compost for use on their food plants?

…yes, we have conducted two composting trials, one in food waste, and the other in composting wood bark windrows.

G – What are your printing protocols – will the inks be as degradable/safe as the film?

The films that are used are compostable, and are food contact approved as well. Food grade inks are used, and are trapped within the lamination process used to join all films together.

At present we print with flexographic printing inks based on nitro cellulose derived from wood. We have fully compostable inks and adhesives available which we will switch to once we reach minimum ordering volumes, and the market for Econic bags is realised.

G – I imagine there is no glue used in the construction of the bags, but just making sure?

There is a lamination adhesive present in small quantity to join all the film together and trap the printing inks.

G – Is the aluminum layer required for the air/moisture barrier?

Yes,  It is an inert and very thin layer of aluminium oxide.  This has been certified compostable and non-harmful as part of the british standard EN13432 and ASTM6400.

So. The bottom line is that some of the first tranche of eco-friendly packaging products were either ill-conceived or straight out greenwash. The good news is it looks like a second wave is just around the corner with high quality standards and good science behind them.