Plastic, coffee and ethical consumerism

“[W]hile 30% of UK consumers claimed to espouse ethical standards only 3% of purchases examined reflected those standards”∗.

Earth from space, South America, coffee

The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

Most of us are aware of the growing number of environmental problems facing our planet and many of us want to do something. The question is what? Take the packaging that we use for freshly-roasted coffee. It often comes in metallised plastic bags with aroma valves on the front. Is this packaging good for the environment, or for our coffee?

Many factors will influence our decisions as consumers. Even our ‘ethical’ decisions can be based on different arguments. One factor though is, hopefully, the insights gained from scientific studies on the environmental effects of different types of packaging. Today’s Daily Grind examines some of this science.

Types of coffee packaging available

When you order coffee from a roaster, or buy it at a supermarket, mostly it will arrive in a metallised plastic bag. Some companies will supply coffee in compostable ‘plastic’ packaging, or paper, but most bags are still made from ordinary plastic. Some, larger, coffee roasters supply their coffee in cans. Although these are 100% recyclable, the increased weight compared to plastic packaging and the limited re-usability of the cans mean that plastic packaging can be more environmentally friendly than canned coffee. This article is therefore only going to consider smaller roasters and the plastic vs paper debate.

The problems of packaging

It is helpful to clarify the environmental concerns with respect to packaging. For the case of paper vs plastic, three major areas of concern are:

  • Depletion of a limited resource, recycling and re-usability.
  • Carbon dioxide emissions – in the manufacture and transportation of packaging.
  • Degradability – in both landfill and as litter.

Recycling and the Limited Resource problem

air valve, plastic, environmental coffee packaging

Disposable products make up about 37% of plastics produced‡. Are we wasting limited supplies by wanting our coffee as fresh as possible?

Paper comes from wood but plastics are generally a by-product of the petroleum industry (5% of petroleum in the US is used to produce plastics). Perhaps you will say that not all plastics are made from petroleum by-products. It is true. “Compostable” plastics are typically manufactured from starch based products (corn etc). However other bio-degradable plastics are petroleum based. “Oxo-biodegradable” plastic is ‘ordinary’ plastic with a small amount of catalyst added to it during manufacture. The catalyst causes the plastic to break down more quickly than the conventional plastic without the additive. Typically oxo-biodegradable plastic will be manufactured to degrade after 18 months compared with many years for ‘ordinary’ plastic.

Both compostable and oxo-biodegradable plastic are sometimes called ‘biodegradable’, but there are crucial differences between the two. For the sake of this article, I’ll be comparing ‘ordinary’ plastic with ‘compostable’ plastic (conforming to EN 13432) and oxo-biodegradable plastic (regulation ASTM D6954).

So the first part of the question would be to ask if the coffee packaging is made from recycled material. Paper can clearly be made from recycled material as can ordinary plastic and oxo-biodegradable plastic. Compostable plastic cannot be recycled and so cannot have been made from recycled material.

The second part of the question is whether you can recycle the packaging after using it. Again, paper packaging can obviously be recycled (provided it is not lined with plastic). Although both ordinary and oxo-biodegradable plastic can, in principle, be recycled, the multilayered and metallised design of the coffee bag means that it is not normally recyclable. Some coffee roasters however have started using specially designed plastic packaging that can be recycled in normal recycling centers. It would be great if more followed suit.

Two questions for your coffee supplier: Are the bags used to package the coffee made from recycled material and are they recyclable?

Greenhouse Gas emissions and energy costs

paper bag roasted coffee

Is a paper bag necessarily better for the environment?

Perhaps it is greenhouse gas emissions that concern you and so want to choose an environmentally sound packaging in terms of its CO2 emissions? Paper or plastic? You may be surprised. The environmental cost of a packaging type as measured by its CO2 emissions depends mostly on the energy that is required to manufacture it and the energy that is required to transport the packaging material to the point at which it is used (ie. the delivery of the bags to the roaster).

A few years ago, the Environment Agency performed a lifecycle analysis of different types of shopping bags (plastic, paper, cloth). Plastic bags are typically significantly lighter than the heavier paper bags. So, in addition to the cost of making the bags, it is going to require more energy to transport paper bags to the point of use. The report calculated that the manufacture and transportation of paper bags consumed so much more energy than plastic bags, that paper bags had to be re-used 4 times in order to have the same CO2 emissions as an ordinary supermarket plastic bag, re-used as a bin liner. The situation for a cloth bag was even worse.

Although the plastic used for coffee packaging is much heavier than a standard supermarket shopping bag, the analysis suggests that if your concern is CO2, paper is not necessarily better than plastic. It depends on how you are going to re-use the bags before you eventually recycle them.

Litter and Degradability

I hope that no one is deliberately discarding their used coffee packets onto the street or onto the beach! But litter and bio-degradability are big issues for plastic based packaging materials, particularly at sea. There are horrific stories about marine animals being starved due to consuming plastic or being drowned because they are entangled in it. Paper will degrade very quickly and so clearly does not suffer from the same problems as the plastic packaging in this topic. However, as mentioned above, not all plastic is the same. As well as ordinary plastic, your coffee could come roasted and packaged in a degradable plastic, either compostable or oxo-biodegradable.

sea no litter

There is a big problem with plastic litter ending up in the oceans

The name ‘compostable plastic’ (EN13432) is, to me, a bit disingenuous. It suggests that it breaks down in a composting facility such as my worm bin. But the standard EN13432 does not refer to such home-composting at all. For a plastic to be deemed compostable it has to break down under industrial composting conditions (ie. it is held at 58 C for the period of its degradation). Not all countries/councils offer such facilities for their waste disposal and so a compostable plastic sent to landfill offers little advantage over ‘ordinary’ plastic. However, in the marine environment it has been shown that the compostable plastic bag did degrade quickly relative to ordinary plastic bags‡.

Oxo-biodegradable plastic on the other hand works very differently. At the time of its manufacture, metal-salt catalysts are added to the plastic that determine how long the plastic survives before it breaks down. As long as it is exposed to light and oxygen, the oxo-biodegradable plastic will break down after, typically, 18 months (though the usable time can be made longer than this). Recent studies have shown that it is safe to recycle oxo-biodegradable plastic together with conventional plastic recycling†. Provided that the bag does not get covered in algae, an oxo-biodegradable plastic will break down after 18 months (if that was the time specified at manufacture) whether it is on land or on sea.

Therefore if litter is what you are worried about, you have to ask where you think that the plastics are going to end up and whether you want to be able to recycle them or just re-use them.

So what should you do?

There’s no point me answering this question for you. Ultimately I do not know your individual circumstances and concerns, nor how you are buying and consuming your coffee. Moreover, these considerations have been solely based on some of the environmental problems associated with different packaging. Coffee consumption has other factors, such as the major issue of how the coffee tastes. Earlier this year, Roasting House conducted an experiment to blind-taste the coffee after it had been stored in different types of packaging. You can find the results of that interesting study here.

a take away cup

The next problem. What should we do about take-away cups?

Personally, my concerns are principally the greenhouse gas emissions and the litter/degradability problem. I also buy coffee that is delivered to me very soon after it has been roasted. So I tend to favour packaging that uses unbleached, recycled paper. There is a caveat though. The CO2 emissions caused by paper manufacture and transportation means that I need to find a way to re-use the bags as often as possible before recycling/composting. Fortunately, I think there is a great use for old paper coffee bags: They are the perfect size for carrying loose vegetables or uncooked fish/meat products in supermarkets (rather than use the plastic bags that can be supplied for these products). Each paper coffee bag can be reused multiple times before it finally becomes unusable.

If I were drinking coffee that wasn’t quite so freshly roasted, I would be in favour of using oxo-biodegradable plastic (preferably from recycled material). I do not currently have an opinion on compostable (EN13432) plastic. The results of the degradation of compostable plastic in a marine environment were encouraging and if it starts to become genuinely compostable (as I understand the word in terms of home composting) it would definitely be a type of packaging to consider.

You may come to different conclusions, if you do so, please do let me know what you think in the comments section below. In the meantime, a map of coffee roasters who are trying to improve the environmental footprint of their packaging in a variety of ways can be found here.

 

I am grateful for discussions with Oh Ying Ying of Miracle Spectrum Sdn Bhd who helped me to navigate the minefield of environmental plastics. There is much more to write about plastics, the environment, litter & the Paris meeting, the whole issue of take-away cups for example!

∗ Yeow et al., “Bags for life: the embedding of ethical consumerism” J. Business Ethics, 125, 87 (2014)

‡ O’Brine et al., “Degradation of plastic carrier bags in the marine environment”, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 60, 2279 (2010)

† A report by the Transfer Centre für Kunststofftecknik GmbH (“TCKT”) dated 12 November 2013 on behalf of European Plastic Converters (EuPC), Roediger Agencies.

ª Plastics and the Environment, Ed. AL Andrady, Wiley-Interscience Publications, 2003

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