By Catherine Franks
We are beyond exited to be launching our new packaging for coffee this week! If you have been following our packaging story, you will know that it has been a very long journey to get to this point. I have written about it in two former blog posts: Our Journey Towards More Eco Friendly Packaging and Coffee Packaging: It may be time for a radical rethink.
You would think there is not much more to say … you would be wrong!
We have learned so much about packaging through this process and I don’t want to repeat what I have talked about in the previous posts, but thought it would be good to highlight some of what we have achieved with our new packaging and why we made the choices we have. No packaging is waste free and nothing is perfect but we are pretty happy overall with the eco credentials of our brand new coffee bags.
One of the things we have focussed on this time round is minimising our packaging. Whereas we loved the look of our retail boxes they did mean that every 250g pack of beans used both a (compostable) bag and a cardboard box. They also had a label with coffee info and even occasionally a ‘grind’ sticker when someone ordered ground coffee. Because of the problems we experienced last year with the cellophane bags splitting when shipping, we also used different packaging for online orders and what we sold in the shop - it had become a complicated mess!
Now we have one 250g pouch for everything. Whether you order online, buy in our store, or get a subscription* your coffee will come in the same bag. We have gotten rid of the extra unnecessary layer created by having an outer box. There is even a wee tick box system on the back of the pack for grind size so stickers are no longer needed.
(* subscriptions will continue in the current unbranded compostable pouches for around one more month to enable us to finish our stock of those bags before we switch to the new pouches. The current subs packaging is made from the same home compostable material as our new bags, it just isn’t printed.)
If you are coming in to our roastery/cafe in NB, you can still bring your own container and buy unpackaged ‘Naked Coffee’ too. The beans we use as our main espresso are available unpackaged at a cheaper price .
Coffee Packaging - a history
Forgive me as I just re-share the history of coffee packaging from my first blog, it is a really good overview. If you don't want to read it again, just skip to the next section.
The most common type of coffee bag is a laminated one. This means it is a composite of different types of materials that bring different important qualities to the packaging. So up until recently coffee bags were pretty much all foil lined and included a valve for degassing the coffee. This was in order to keep the coffee fresh as long as possible and prolong shelf life. Now when I say traditional I mean what has been used in recent times. In the very early days of coffee roasting plain paper sacks or tins would have been used which either break down and rot or can be reused. Both relatively environmentally friendly. Then at the start of the 20th century as roasted coffee was increasingly being mass produced, better packaging was developed to keep it fresher for longer. You can read a really interesting and much more detailed history of coffee packaging HERE.
The problem with laminating materials is that it makes the final product really hard to recycle. That is why Tetra Pak for example is so hard to recycle and so few facilities are actually available to recycle it in the UK. The resources needed to recycle the materials can be considerable too and there needs to be a market for the recycled material at the end of the process to make it viable and sustainable. I recently read a very interesting article regarding Tetra Pak which you can see HERE if you want to find out more about the challenges involved.
The same issue can be found in so called 'compostable' packaging. Although technically 'compostable' these materials need to be commercially composted in order to break down. This means they need to be chopped up and composted at a hot temperature in order to break down. They won't break down in your backyard compost bin or in landfill as they do not get the right conditions there. Furthermore the resource used to produce materials that are used briefly and then thrown away continues the cycle of waste and perpetuates the harmful 'disposable' mindset. Not only that, they can create quite a problem with the contamination of recycling and composting facilities. Check out this interesting ARTICLE about the 'dark side' of compostable containers if you want to read more.
The Customer Perspective
Last spring when we realised we would need to redesign our coffee packaging, our first step was to ask our customers what YOU ideally wanted from coffee packaging. A few interesting points came out of this. This was the feedback we got:
- Clear info about what to do with the packaging after use is important.
- People really did not want the bags to contain plastic!
- In the discussion between recyclable vs compostables there was a pretty even split. It is important to acknowledge that not everyone has the facilities to compost their waste.
- Aesthetics and practicality matter too.
I would like to look at each of these in turn, and how we think our new packaging responds to these points.
Clear information regarding disposal
It is my experience that most coffee packaging does not tell customers exactly how to dispose of it. We have been guilty of this in the past ourselves - it is necessary to take a step back and to look at the situation for the perspective of the consumer. You guys are faced with endless different types of coffee bag. We get a subscription ourselves so each month we get four different coffees and usually as many different types of packaging too! It is really confusing to figure out what most of them are made from, and even after that it is hard to find out what your local authority collects or doesn’t. In the case of our own packaging although our previous boxes did say the inner was cellophane, we still had a lot of customers think the bags were plastic and say they were putting them into their plastic recycling.
Why is this such a problem? Contamination of recycling streams can lead to whole consignments of recycling being dumped into landfill. This is a problem that governments desperately need to address with legislation tightening up labelling requirements on manufacturers. Until all of our packaging is properly labeled with recycling info, we cannot expect enough materials to be disposed of properly and recycled as they should. Check out an example of a very useful scheme in Austria (TUV clip) - this sort of thing would be such a help here! I would argue that some packaging is purposefully kept confusing in attempts at greenwashing by manufacturers. This is not a problem that should be blamed on consumers - not everyone has the time to do extensive research on materials prior to throwing something in the bin.
Our new packaging tells customers clearly that our coffee packaging is certified ‘home compostable’ this means that it will break down in your heap at home without it needing to achieve the high temperatures of a commercial composting system.
The drawback with offering compostable packaging is that many people do not have a compost heap at home and most local authorities will not accept packaging in their food waste collection.
If you do not have composting facilities at home to deal with our new coffee bags, you can return them to us and I will compost them in my own garden compost. Either drop them off at our shop, or save them up and when you have a good pile post them back to us!
Customers told us they are incredibly concerned about plastic pollution and really would rather plastic be avoided in our packaging. I’ve had some interesting conversations over that past year with people who work in packaging who argue that plastics (if kept as a single type of material rather than a combination or lamination of different materials) is arguably a good option as it is a really easy to recycle, lightweight and protective material. They argue that for this reason it continues to be the future of packaging. I think that the way that plastics are currently being recycled (either burned!! Or shipped overseas where they end up polluting the environment) does not not currently make them a good environmentally sustainable choice. The polls I conducted of our customers backed that up - they were clear they did not want plastic coffee packaging from us.
Recycling vs Composting
In our poll of customers, opinion was pretty evenly divided between us offering compostable vs recyclable coffee bags. It all depends on whether you have a compost heap! Recycling is available to almost everyone in the UK but not for all materials. And when we looked into it even ‘recyclable’ plastic coffee bags (such as those we were using temporarily) were not necessarily easily recycled in the UK - basically it depends which local authority you reside in. Composting is just as fraught as there are different grades of ‘compostability’ and again depending on what your local authority does with food waste you most likely will not be able to compost packaging in your municipal waste collection.
I have written quite a lot previously about ‘compostable’ claims and greenwashing. It is one of those things that really gets on my wick as it is touted by so many manufacturers as a green option when in fact it is nothing of the sort. Some compostables even contain plastics that have an additive to break them down into micro plastics! The plant (not petroleum) based commercially composted packaging like that produced by Vegware and Decent Packaging (who we now use for our take away cups) is all well and good but commercial composting facilities to deal with the waste post consumer is not widely available. It is certainly not something the average consumer has access to.
Once you have drunk your take away coffee where does the cup go? It most likely goes in the nearest public bin from where it goes into landfill. Some people mistakenly put their cups in paper recycling. This is even worse! The plant based ‘plastic’ inside the cup which prevents it leaking hot coffee all over you actually contaminates paper recycling and destroys the end product.
So what about food waste collections? These are even trickier. Most local authorities (including ours in East Lothian) do not compost their food waste. They use an anaerobic digestion process instead. This means they can collect potentially harmful materials like meat and process them. But it also means they cannot process ‘compostable’ disposable materials like ‘compostable’ cups or ‘compostable’ coffee bags. It is only in traditional aerobic composting, but in large commercial heaps that achieve very high temperatures, that these sorts of products can break down. They will not break down in home compost heaps or in anaerobic digestion tanks.
This is why at Steampunk we have tried to collect our disposables post consumer for the past few years. At the end of last year we unfortunately lost our composting facilities when Vegware stopped collecting our used cups as part of their ‘Close the Loop’ system. As we were only one of two businesses in our area using the service (which we paid for by the way) it was not economically viable for them to continue it. This was quite a blow, especially during the pandemic when we still not yet having customers sitting in and using reusable cups. As a mitigating factor we have continued to champion customers bringing their own cups, offering a discount when they do so, and offering this right through the pandemic. But despite this we ended up sending vast quantities of disposable cups to landfill. As you can imagine this was heartbreaking and felt like such a step backwards!
We are extremely happy to say that since the start of 2022 we have been able to start collecting our disposable cups again for composting as local company Caledonian Horticulture are now commercially composting them for us. At the end of last year when they saw my social media post about losing our composting service they reached out and offered to do a trial to see if our cups would break down in their hot compost heaps. So for a few weeks we collected cups and lids and they chopped them all up and stuck them into their heaps. When they checked 6 weeks later the material had completely broken down!! So now we are collecting the cups and lids again at Steampunk and I am driving them out to their site here in East Lothian every month or so. The material they produce can be purchased just along the road from us at Home Hardware - it is their Green Goodness soil improver. Below are some pictures of our cups going to Caledonian Horticulture and their processing facility.
Aesthetics and Practicality
Last but certainly not least, the aesthetics of coffee packaging certainly do matter. You eat with your eyes first after all! So we knew we had to work with our good friend and talented illustrator Rachel Seago to come up with another packaging solution that would look beautiful on your brew bar. We chose a grey blue for the bags and used Rachel’s wave patterns up the side as a nod to our seaside home. The palette of colours that we have used on our labels (yes they are fully compostable) are mid century modern - one of our favourite design eras and one that is reflected in the vintage furnishings in our cafe. We love the way the colour palette echoes the colours found around North Berwick. The pouch sits up steadily on our shelf - and on your counter. It also has a zip at the top so it can be easily resealed. We think although it looks fresh and new it also still really looks like us. We hope you agree!
Our coffee bag also had to have lots of useful information in a clear readable format. It needed to be practical and easy to open and close. We also wanted a valve so that as the coffee degasses after roasting the bag doesn’t puff up! We have retained the started brew guide too - you can find it on the bottom of the bag.
Is this the final chapter?
I asked at the very beginning of this post if we were there yet. In all honesty I think that packaging is one of those things that will constantly be evolving so no doubt at some point in the future we will revisit it again. I hope that packaging manufacturers come out with better options and I hope governments regulate packaging and waste recycling better.
In the meantime though, it feels like we have spent the past 3-4 years discussing packaging so I hope you like these new bags as they will be around for a little while yet and I'm not planning any more blog posts on packaging for a while.