By Catherine Franks
I like to look at every problem as an opportunity. Our packaging is currently giving us the opportunity to think again about how we ensure that our coffee gets to you safely, in the best condition and with minimal environmental impact.
The tough thing is that there are no easy answers when it comes to packaging. We have been on a journey from day one when it comes to packaging and wrote a blog post about the road to our current system, which is a mixture of recyclable and home compostable elements. You can read the blog post HERE.
The problem (ahem, I mean opportunity...)
Recently, we have had increasing headaches with one aspect of our packaging - the compostable cellophane bag. We wrote about this bag in our previous blog post (linked above) and up until recently only had the very occasional incident of it failing.
Over the past month this has changed. It began at the time of that massive cold snap a few weeks ago when we started getting messages from customers' whose coffee bags had split during shipping. We replaced the affected orders and stopped using what we hoped was the isolated box of bags that were causing the issue. We reckoned that the fluctuation in temperature, the damp and those sorts of factors had affected the bags. They are designed to break down easily in the compost, after all, so we thought that might have been what was happening.
We spoke with the manufacturer of the bags and unfortunately they explained that the quality tolerance was pretty big for the compostable film used to make them. This means that the bags will be of varying strength and quality. We were finding that the bags all split in pretty much exactly the same place so there was definitely an issue with the strength of the bags.
Packaging is not an area where there are easy solutions, and there are certainly no quick solutions either. We are investigating another compostable pouch, but for us to continue to go down the compostable route we need to be assured that the final product will keep the coffee fresh and will get it to you, our customer, safely. We also want to be sure that that is the option with the best environmental outcomes. There are some serious issues to consider when it comes to compostable packaging, and we had already decided that only packaging rated as home compostable was acceptable for us. Other packaging which is labelled compostable usually needs to be treated in a specific waste stream which is just not available to the domestic consumer (like Vegware which needs to be commercially composted). This means it either ends up contaminating recycling streams or in landfill where it does not break down. Would you believe that some stuff which is sold as compostable is actually conventional plastic which has had an additive added to it to accelerate how fast it breaks down. But this then breaks down into micro-plastics. Sometimes doing something that looks like a solution can end up creating other problems. Check out this article if you would like to learn more: Why biodegradables won't solve the plastics crisis.
We have done a survey of our customers to inform what direction we take our packaging in next and are still doing research and investigating different options. We have learned some interesting things from how you use the bags once they are in your home too (for example finding they split if used to freeze coffee). This is very much a learning process and we need to appreciate that our bags need to last longer than just the journey time to you.
A radical band aid
In the meantime, it is crucial that we find an immediate solution to the immediate issue of the bags splitting. After all it is not environmentally friendly to be wasting coffee or to be sending it twice so the cellophane option is currently having a whole other unanticipated impact.
So here is what we are doing. We still have a stock of the 100% recyclable plastic bags that we used to package our coffee in. When we switched to the cello bags we still had these and had not yet managed to rehome them.
Hey, sometimes if you hang on to something long enough it becomes useful again? I think that is basically the Steampunk motto.
So for now, we will use those bags when we are fulfilling online orders. They can be recycled easily in your plastic recycling collection and we will be sending info out with them to make sure they are disposed of correctly. I am learning that it is the confusion over what to do with packaging at the end of its use that causes a lot of problems in waste streams.
Don't get me wrong, it has been a really tough decision to go back on our 100% plastic free packaging pledge. It is not one we have taken lightly. But once you take into account the wastefulness caused by our current cello bags and the additional environmental costs of replacing the coffee and shipping it again, then the cellophane does not seem like the greenest option any more.
We are continuing to use our cello bags inside our little kraft retail boxes as they seem to work well there - that is how our coffee is packaged when you buy it from us at the shop.
I am doing loads of research into packaging. This is not only about the materials used in the packaging itself and how they are produced, it is equally importantly about how the waste streams for that particular material work at the end of its useful life. So far I am discovering that clarity over how to dispose of the packaging and the waste infrastructure available are key considerations when deciding on what route to take next with our packaging. Check out this interesting short video about packaging and material recirculation.
What we don't want to do is jump onto the bandwagon of something that sounds eco friendly but in fact when it comes to the true impact turns out not to be at all.
As I said at the start of this article, this is very much a work in progress and I will update you in future blog posts. Watch this space...
UPDATE (13 May 2021)
We have managed to source some home compostable pouches and have started to send out coffee subscriptions using those.
We had so much helpful feedback from our customers and the main points we got back strongly from you all were:
1. You want our packaging to remain plastic free
2. You would like it to be compostable or easily recyclable.
We think the new pouches fulfil this criteria and are glad to be testing them out now. Please do give us your feedback.
We have a bit more work to do as we will need to redesign our retail boxes and some of our shipping boxes in order to work with the pouches. But we are working on this and should have these by the summer. In the meantime we are using up an old stock of 100% recyclable plastic coffee bags that we used to use for our retail packaging and had leftover when we swapped to plastic free.