- Updated 18 October 2017
You may have noticed a change in our coffee packaging. It’s the same great fair trade coffee, freshly roasted in Christchurch, but with new packaging.
What is the packaging made of?
The new coffee bag is a change in direction for us, in that it is a recycled paper bag lined with polypropylene, while the bag it is replacing was made out of a compostable film. The decision to move away from the compostable material and back to plastic was not an easy one to make and not one that we have made lightly, but is the result of a number of different considerations.
What was not ideal about the old packaging?
Since we started using the red bags and the associated labelling system, we have encountered ongoing technical difficulties with both the bags and the labels which have added cost and, most disappointingly, waste to our roasted coffee programme. After two years, it was time for us re-consider our coffee packaging system and we felt that we had an expensive bag that wasn’t really working for us, wasn’t as ‘sustainable’ as we had initially hoped and we needed a new approach.
Plastics and the environmental footprint
When we consider the impact of a packaging component, we have to consider the whole life cycle of that item, what it’s made of, how it’s made, how it will be used and ultimately how it will be disposed of. By people who are concerned about the environmental impact of their actions, plastic is often seen as the least favourable packaging choice, because it is not ‘natural’ and does not break down (in human time scales at least). When the whole life cycle is taken into account however, plastic may have less impact than it’s alternatives and the question then becomes, where in the life cycle is the waste being created and how much is the relative impact of that waste? Manufactured compostable packaging materials (paper, cellophane, cardboard and bioplastics) have lengthy and complex supply chains – they are made primarily of plant material from crops or trees, usually grown using fossil fuels and large amounts of water as well as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers – which are also usually derived from fossil fuels. These bulky ingredients are harvested and transported, again using fossil fuels, and then processed using more energy and chemical inputs creating waste water and material which must be disposed of. Plastic on the other hand uses natural gas or oil directly as a feedstock – and as such is made of a non-renewable resource by an industry which could certainly be more transparent, but it has a far simpler supply chain and requires much less energy or water to produce, and being lighter and less bulky requires less energy to transport. So the difference between ‘compostable’ materials and plastic is where the waste is generated. Compostables use fossil fuels and generate more greenhouse gas emissions and water waste in production, while plastic generates more litter and visible environmental pollution and is made of a precious non-renewable resource. Which then has more impact?
Feedback we have had from our customers about the compostable coffee packaging suggests that when it is disposed of, it more often goes to the landfill than into the compost. The red bags are not accepted by municipal green waste collections, so if a customer wants to compost it, the only option is home composting. A coffee bag would normally be used and disposed of in a home environment, so is very unlikely to end up as litter. It can be disposed of responsibly through the municipal waste collection into a landfill, where it is relatively stable and effectively sequesters the carbon it contains.
The best solution for now
In the end we chose to go back to a bag made of plastic with a recycled paper outer for functional reasons as well as considerations of environmental footprint. The labels are also made of paper. We have greater versatility in the new label system as we can custom print the information on the labels relating to each coffee variety. It also means that we will be able to introduce new coffees easily and economically and without the waste off the compostable labels.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t need packaging and we’d be able to sell everything on a ‘fill your own’ basis, but in the current retail environment that is not yet practical and we have to use disposable packaging. While this remains the situation we will continue to try to find the best solutions we can.