By Catherine Franks
Packaging is a huge issue, and in all honesty a bit of a nightmare for any producer who is looking at minimising their waste. Although we have been an environmentally conscious business since the beginning, in 2018 we decided to focus on improving how we worked and one of the things we changed was our packaging. Two years on, we reflect on how this has worked out for us and what our aims are moving forward.
What even is environmentally friendly packaging?
Coffee packaging is a really tough nut to crack and let me start off by saying that I really don't have any easy answers for you here. All I can do it tell you about our own packaging journey, what our thinking is behind the steps we have taken and what has worked (and hasn't worked) for us. What has worked for us definitely won't work for everybody and I guess each business just needs to work out its needs and priorities and that will influence the packaging they use.
What is for sure is that there is a compromise between environmental friendliness and ideal packaging for coffee, you just need to decide where along that scale you sit. There is a lot of greenwashing out there when it comes to the manufacturers of packaging and it is hard to get real information on which to base your purchasing decisions.
Greenwashing 101: just because a coffee bag is kraft brown and looks like paper on the outside does not make it environmentally friendly.
Packaging is by its nature something that is thrown away (though of course it can be reused too) so by definition it is inherently wasteful. However one thing 2020 has taught is is that online shopping is here to stay and certainly as far as ours business is concerned it has been a lifeline that we wish to continue to grow. So our packaging journey is definitely one we will be on for some time.
We have two different types of packaging for our coffees at Steampunk, actually three or four if you really get down to it and include wholesale and honestly that in itself is a bit of a headache. Having different types of packaging uses up quite a bit of storage space and also can lead to quite a bit more work and time where you have to think about what packaging to use. So straight off there is a big downside to how we do it. So this is very much a work in progress and hopefully things will continue to develop and change as new types of packaging come onto the market.
Our Packaging for Retail
Our current retail packaging consists of a plant based transparent cellophane bag (made out of Natureflex) which sits in a cardboard box made of FSC certified card. We print our own paper labels with the coffee info. This is how we sell our coffee in the shop.
During lockdown we also started offering a larger size - 500g - for coffee bags as we found this was popular with the increased working from home and also the decrease in people going out to coffee shops. This comes in the Natureflex bag alone as we do not have a custom box for this size - this will possibly be our next project if the size remains popular.
Composting - Why we chose Natureflex
We went for this option because we wanted our packaging to be home compostable. Our experience of using Vegware was that customers were really confused about how to dispose of it afterwards. Some customers thought it could be recycled with paper but doing so would in fact contaminate their recycling. Others assumed it was home compostable which it is not. Most of it likely just ends up in landfill where it will take a long time to rot due to lack of light and oxygen. We collect our Vegware compostables outside Steampunk and we pay to have them commercially processed and composted through Vegware's 'Close the Loop' initiative, but this is by no means the solution to the wastefulness of disposable/throw away coffee culture.
With Natureflex cello bags, the evidence is compelling that they do indeed break down in normal home composting environments and they are certified as home compostable. Check out this VIDEO demonstrating the breakdown in home compost of exactly the same bags as ours. There is also this very cool time-lapse of Natureflex (in this case a laminated version) breaking down. Because who doesn't love a time lapse!!??
Reduce rather than recycle
When it comes to shipping our online orders we offer the option of 'minimal packaging' too. Minimising the packaging used is always the more eco friendly option as 'reduce' is much more important than 'recycle' and saves the resources used in the manufacture of the packaging no matter how eco friendly. We offer a cost savings when people choose this and it is set as the default option. People can choose to add a box (at a cost of 50p) if they are maybe giving the coffee as a gift etc. The minimal packaging consists of the Natureflex bag with a paper sticker and those in turn are packed directly into our shipping box or envelope. We find the vast majority of our customers chose the minimal option.
Reducing the Shipping footprint
Our branded shipping boxes, manufactured by PackHelp are made of a minimum 90% recycled material and are fully recyclable. Our subscriptions are packed in a Natureflex bag and a flat padded envelope by Enviroflute so that they can fit through a letterbox. Enviroflute are 100% paper - fully biodegradable and recyclable and they are also space saving and lighter than compared to traditional padded bags, saving resourced used in shipping both from us with our products and also to us, from the manufacturer.
Reuse - the most eco friendly solution
Before Covid 19 hit we also had loose dispensers where we offered 'Naked Coffee' where people could bring their containers for refills of completely unpackaged beans. This is definitely the most eco friendly approach but sadly we stopped it this year as we have been operating under different Covid protocols where we try to minimise contact team members have with things brought in by from the outside. Also, because of restrictions in how we operate, we are trying to minimise waste and the refill system is harder to keep on top of the quantities we are roasting and selling. We will revisit this option again as things improve regarding Covid.
Our Packaging for Wholesale
For wholesale we have continued to use 100% recyclable plastic kg bags produced by Dutch Coffee Pack. We switched to these some years ago from the traditional foil lined bags we used when we first started the business. We used to use these for our retail packaging too. The good thing about these bags is they are made from only a single material and are therefore very easy to recycle. Plastic recycling is easy to access by our wholesale partners and so it hopefully keeps that material out of landfill. Dutch coffee pack bags are also now certified as CO2 neutral. They are tough and meet the needs of our customers, keeping the coffee safe until they serve it. They also have a valve which is important for degassing the coffee and keeping it airtight and fresh. Unfortunately our Natureflex bags are just not strong enough for holding a kg of coffee or have a strong enough seal for being moved around and stacked and stored like they would need to be in a cafe environment.
We have trialled using barrels with some of our geographically closer partners but the difficulty is getting those back to us. As we are not in a city centre near to the cafes we supply this may always be a logistical issue for us. We will keep working on it.
Traditional coffee packaging
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 'eco' packaging like for example the Vegware take away packaging we use at Steampunk. 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. When it comes to take aways we have been pretty successful in our promotion of reusable cups and that is maybe another topic for another blog post.
So this is why we have not gone down the route of purpose made coffee packaging which is 'compostable'. We have found it hard to get very specific info from some manufacturers about how the bag is made and just exactly how compostable it is. Some bags which are labelled compostable are even lined with plastic which has an additive that helps it break down. But then that forms microplastics, something we definitely wish to avoid. Bags with a plant based liner might require the same sorts of conditions to break down as Vegware and that is just not accessible to the average consumer.
Our packaging journey has been one of ups and downs. Here are some of the drawbacks of where we are now. Toughness is definitely one of the drawbacks of using Natureflex bags. Our earliest bags were too thin and frequently split so we changed them immediately to a thicker version and that has generally worked fine in the 250g size. It seems to work really well when it is in a box which is why we have developed our latest shipping boxes which seem to protect the minimal packaging well during transit. Before this the bigger 500g bags would very occasionally split during shipping. Luckily the new boxes seem to have solved this problem pretty much entirely. During our process of developing our packaging we did have to replace a few bags for customers but by and large people were very understanding and were really happy that we were making the effort to make our packaging more environmentally friendly. We are extremely thankful of our customers who have been so supportive of us throughout our packaging experiments!!
The second drawback to our packaging is that the bags do not have a de-gassing valve. In order to deal with this issue we pack our coffees the day after roasting once they have largely degassed. We seem to not experience to many bags popping or spilling, again that is a small trade off that we decided was worthwhile.
Finally, we have done tests regarding freshness and we know that the nature flex bags are not as good as traditional zip sealed bags at keeping the coffee fresh over time. That is why we recommend that people store the coffee in airtight jars or canisters once they get it home. We will look at adding this information to our packaging the next time we reorder it and for now are trying to spread the word. Check out our blogpost on coffee storage HERE if you want to find out more.
In general we are pretty happy with our current packaging solution. The majority of the coffee we pack is in retail packaging so we are happy that we have managed to make this 100% plastic free, easy to recycle or compost and simple for the consumer to dispose of correctly.
We are still looking for a more secure solution for our larger (wholesale) sizes of 1kg but we are reasonably happy that our current packaging is lightweight, strong and easy to recycle at least.
We will continue to explore ways that we can reduce and encourage reuse of packaging as priorities over recycling or composting as we move forward.