The Recycling Challenge of Coffee Bags

First Published: June 13, 2023

Here at Packaging Towers, we love coffee. It gets us up in the morning and keeps us going through the rest of the day.

But here’s the problem: once the last bean has been ground, most of us face a conundrum: what to do with the empty coffee bag? Unfortunately, coffee bags significantly contribute to waste and are notoriously difficult to recycle. Let’s take a look at the reasons why.

The Multi-Material Issue

The most significant hurdle to recycling coffee bags is their complex construction. These bags are usually made from various materials, including plastics, aluminum, and sometimes paper. This multi-layered design is necessary to preserve the coffee’s freshness and flavor, preventing exposure to light, oxygen, and moisture.

Plastic offers durability and water resistance, aluminum provides a barrier to light and oxygen, and paper can add additional protection and rigidity. However, the combination of these materials that makes the packaging so effective makes recycling difficult. Most recycling facilities are not equipped to separate and process these materials when they are fused together.

The Contamination Challenge

Another issue is contamination. The oils and residue left by the coffee can contaminate the recycling process. Like any organic material, coffee can degrade and affect the quality of the recycled material. It also poses a challenge to recycling facilities, which need to clean the bags before they can be processed, adding an extra step and cost.

The Size Factor

Size also plays a role. Small, lightweight items, like coffee bags, can get lost in the sorting process at recycling facilities. They often fall through sorting screens and end up in the landfill-bound waste stream.

The Lack of Standardization

Additionally, there’s a lack of standardization in coffee bag production, with different brands currently using different materials and designs. This variability further complicates recycling efforts, as each type of bag may require a different recycling process.

The Bright Side: Innovations in Packaging

The good news is that awareness about the coffee bag waste problem is growing, and some companies are developing more sustainable packaging alternatives. These include compostable bags, bags made from a single type of material, or programs to collect and recycle used coffee bags.

Fortunately, there have been significant strides in the recycling of coffee bags. Gaviña Coffee Company, for example, has recycled over 2 million used coffee bags, single-serve coffee pods, and espresso capsules through its Coffee Bag and Pod Free Recycling Program set up with TerraCycle. The program enables individuals, schools, offices, or community organizations to recycle used packaging by registering online, collecting used packaging, printing prepaid labels, and mailing the collected waste to TerraCycle. The recycled material can be used to create new products like park benches, and participants can donate to select charities based on points earned for recycling.

In addition, Fres-co System USA, Inc. has recently made progress by producing the first ultra-high barrier coffee bag certified for the NexTrex® recycling stream. The recyclable coffee package, Nextpak™, is made entirely from polyethylene and has been tested and validated by Trex Company, a wood-alternative decking and railing manufacturer. This certification allows customers to upcycle their single-use coffee bags into long-lived construction products without compromising shelf life or venting performance. The NexTrex® label assures consumers that they can recycle the packaging at grocery and retail drop-off locations throughout the United States.

Of course, this isn’t as convenient as dealing with recycling coffee bags with the rest of our weekly items, but at least it’s a start.

How Can Consumers Help?

While advancements in coffee bag recycling are encouraging, consumers can still play a crucial role in supporting sustainability. One of the most impactful actions is supporting companies prioritizing sustainable packaging and recycling programs.

This can be as simple as opting for brands that use recyclable packaging, participating in recycling programs, or buying beans in bulk and using your own reusable container. By supporting these endeavors, consumers can contribute to a greener future, one cup of coffee at a time.

However, these solutions are not yet widespread, and they come with their own set of challenges. Compostable bags, for instance, often require industrial composting facilities to break down, which are not available in all areas. Single-material bags may not provide the same level of protection for the coffee. Collection programs can be inconvenient or inaccessible for some consumers.

In conclusion, while the multi-material composition, contamination, size, and lack of standardization make coffee bags challenging to recycle, growing awareness and innovation pave the way for more sustainable coffee consumption. As consumers, we can play our part by making informed choices and pushing for change in the industry.

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