Green in the Word: A look at the move towards compostable packaging

In 200 years time, it is likely that the foam, polystyrene or paper cup you sipped your coffee from this morning ma undefined

y be sitting in a landfill somewhere.

As coffee consumption continues to grow worldwide, so too does the amount of consumer packaging waste. Sadly, traditional disposable coffee cups are significantly adding to our growing piles of landfill waste and increasing the carbon footprint.

The amount of solid waste generated from the process of manufacturing and drinking coffee is an escalating problem and according to the Environmental Defense Organisation (EDP), 58 billion paper cups are thrown away (not recycled) every year. In Australia and New Zealand alone, over 1.5 billion paper cups are disposed of each year while Americans throw away 2.5 billion disposable cups over the same period.

And, while it is not just paper cups that are contributing to this ever-growing problem, the coffee industry is starting to take notice of the amount of waste being produced from coffee bags to cup-holders and everything in between.

With more than 20 years experience in the environmental packaging industry, Victor Bell, President of Environmental Packaging International (EPI), says consistency is one of the most challenging aspects for the industry, as each country has its own way of dealing with sustainability issues.

“What’s unique about the composting world community is that everybody does it differently,” Victor says. “In order to have a successful product, you have to look at the local structure globally.”

According to Bell, France, Belgium, Germany and Japan are green efficient countris that have very good infrastructure for recovery and recycling. In these countries, they are simply burning waste for energy production because they have very little landfill space.  India and China are also looking at more energy recovery movements, as their landfills are poor, while the UK has a superior reputation for home composting as well as industrial composting.

Bell consults with a large percentage of the American coffee industry, with clients like Kraft, Smuckers, Walmart, Green Mountain and Starbucks.  Bell says that large-chain companies such as Starbucks are looking to reduce their carbon footprint by investing in cups with a PLA lining or by using plastic coatings that can be repulped. Starbuck’s corporate goal is to ensure their cups are 100 per cent reusable or recyclable by 2015 and have stated that their disposable cups have a visible impact on their environmental footprint.

Bell encourages companies to look at not only the long lasting impact their product will have on the environment in the future, but at present impacts as well.  “We need to think about all areas of sustainability, including how can we improve the transportation of the cups and coffee itself so it cuts energy costs. If you reduced the weight of coffee packaging by 80 per cent, we might keep more of it out of the landfill.”

It is such attitudes that are seeing a revival in composting. The method isn’t new. Composting has been around since the early Roman Empire. It was practised as a way to use organic materials that were left to sit and decompose for a year until the next planting season when it was used as a fertiliser to enrich existing soil. It
wasn’t until the early 1920s that composting was modernised in Europe as a tool for organic farming.

Nine decades later, the principles of composting are still the same, but the concept has broadened. According to the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), compost transforms biodegradable materials into a rich substance called compost or humus. Compost is used in farming, gardening and soil conservation and has the advantage of improving the chemical, physical and biological characteristics of soils. It also helps to prevent pollutants in stormwater runoff from reaching surface water resources and has been shown to prevent erosion and silting. Composting is a low-cost alternative to standard landfill cover and artificial soil amendments.

Regulatory guidelines and standards for composting revolve around four basic criteria: material characteristics, biodegradation, disintegration and ecotoxicity (compost quality). Each of the following regions has certification bodies and test procedures to ensure that composting claims have been validated: AS4736 Australia and New Zealand; DIN V 54900-1 Germany; EN-13432 European Union; ASTM 6400-04 United States and; GreenPla Japan.

From small roasting operations to larger packaging companies, pockets of the industry are starting to use biodegradable materials in their efforts to reduce their ecological impact along the way. Christchurch coffee roaster, Caffe Prima, are one such industrious, environmentally-savvy company that has recently released the Econic Pack – believed to be the first ever fully compostable foil bag for freshly roasted coffee.

“This is a world first,” says Caffe Prima’s Emma Johnson. “People in general are more environmentally aware and now they can do their bit for the environment through buying different coffee packaging.”

To meet what they saw as an increasing demand for sustainable coffee packaging, Caffe Prima worked with Convex Plastics, a New Zealand packaging company, to produce a compostable bag made from three separate biodegradable and fully compostable films, laminated together to lock in the coffee’s freshness, taste and flavour. Two layers of cellulose film, derived from 90 per cent renewable wood pulp, are used to protect the coffee from oxygen and moisture and a corn starch sealant layer on the inside of each pack provides the seal required for dry products. The foil packets have been designed with a vent strip to allow the carbon dioxide gases to be released from the roasted beans, escaping through the top seal. This is activated by pressure inside the bag, replacing the traditional non-renewable, one-way value buttons.

A 14-week controlled composting trial at Waikato bark composting facility in New Zealand validated the breakdown rate of Caffe Prima’s Econic packs. Results showed the bags almost completely disappeared after 14 weeks of composting with only small fragments remaining. The bags have been tested and certified by European Standard EN 13432 for biodegradability.

As with leftover food scraps, consumers can bury the Econic packs in the garden or throw them onto the compost heap.

Richard Fine, managing director of BioPak, has based his company on supplying plant based compostable & biodegradable packaging solutions with a strong focus on disposable packaging for the foodservice and coffee industries. BioPak currently supply paper coffee cups and other disposable packaging to Australian and New Zealand cafés. Fine says sustainable packaging serves as a marketable commodity and there’s an increasing trend amongst consumers wanting to go green.

“The café industry is huge in Australia, with 6000 cafes across Australia generating $4.2 billion in turnover every year. Collectively, the industry uses vast amounts of water and electricity and produces equally large quantities of trade waste. All these resources cost the average café owner more than $30,000 per year. There is an opportunity for the industry as a whole to make significant reductions to their environmental impact while simultaneously improving the bottom line,” Fine says.

BioPak supplies a complete range of bioplastic lined paper cups under the BioCup brand. BioPak was the first company is Australia to provide PLA lined coffee cups and a cornstarch based compostable lid. Unlike traditional paper cups, which use petroleum-based plastic lining, BioCup’s are lined with a corn-based biopolymer (polylactic acid-PLA). In addition to the BioCups & lids being compostable, they also have a smaller carbon footprint as PLA Bioplastic requires 65 per cent less energy to produce than conventional plastics.

Fine says cafés often assume environmentally-friendly packaging options that are considerably more expensive. However, he notes, most consumers will gladly pay the extra two or three cents towards the cost of sustainable packaging.

“It’s certainly not a price issue,” he says. “A single wall 8oz cup is nine cents and an 8oz double wall cup is 13 cents.”

“As bioplastics and plant based packaging solutions have become more mainstream, the increased economies of scale have resulted in a significant reduction in price. In some cases our products are more competitively priced than conventional plastic packaging,” Fine says.

The BioCup can be disposed of in a municipal composting waste stream rather than a landfill, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Commercial composting facilities closely control measured inputs of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials and monitor moisture content and oxygen levels. The compost needs a high temperature to start the decomposing process. Microorganisms and bacteria further break up the material and manage the biological process by converting the inputs into heat, carbon dioxide and ammonium. BioCups and lids are designed to decompose in a compost facility within 120 days, returning nutrients back to the soil and reducing waste to landfill.

Fine notes that plant based compostable & biodegradable packaging is not the solution to global warming, however it is a step in the right direction. “It’s an acknowledgement to the fact that the planets resources are finite and with a global population of 7 billion, waste in any form is not sustainable,” he says.
Allen King, President of Excellent Packaging & Supply (EPS) in America, confirms that there is a growing awareness and understanding from the industry on the benefits of environmentally friendly packaging.

EPS stock their own line of sustainable coffee cups called Biomass Packaging, including the Ecotainer and the Kraft Hot cup, which are both lined with Ingeo, making them 100 per cent compostable in a municipal compost facility, managed by industry standards. The Kraft Hot Cup is a three-layer cup with brown paper on the outside and white paper on the inside that is bleached without elemental chlorine. The layers of paper add an insulating property to the cups, which can resist heat of up to 93° Celsius.

“When we first started, sustainable meant ‘bio-based’ to us: that is produced from a renewable resource rather than fossil fuel or from natural gas. Then we wanted it to come to mean compostable. It sets a higher standard,” King says.

So far, the company’s approach to promoting this environmentally-friendly packaging has met with success and King anticipates annual double-digit growth for the next five years. “This is a thriving industry and already there’s tremendous growth all over the world.”

The packaging industry has opened doors to the potential for composting materials. And, while there’s no disputing that other environmentally friendly coffee packaging options, like reusable cups, are a better option in terms of environmental impact in the long term, they aren’t always the convenient option.

King says for the time being, disposable cups aren’t replaceable because our society is structured around this throw-away culture. He does note, however, that there’s general awareness that there is a solution to the problem. “When people purchase a compostable cup, they can say ‘we’re reducing global warming because the carbon footprint of this cup is actually less than the paper cup down the street.’”

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