Over a year ago we embarked on researching and selecting the materials for our new bags. We needed to ensure that the choices we made were environmentally sound. They also had to keep our coffee fresh and look good, but it had to start here. No greenwashing. This is a summary of what we found and the choices we made.
Since launching our previous bags back in 2016, a number of new materials have become available. Trying to understand these and, critically, their environmental credentials was – and is – no mean feat. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. But without the negative intent, because the material is only half the picture. The recycling infrastructure in the UK is the other half, and it can be hard to get a handle on. Which is the challenge, because this is what is really determining how sustainable our choices are; We can choose the most seemingly eco-friendly materials out there, but if they can’t be recycled at the UK kerbside, we’re no further forward. We’re in a fortunate position that we have an EMEA certified Sustainability Officer in-house who was able to research this all for us. Here’s a quick overview of exactly this – what the materials are and how you can process them at the end of their life.
Trying to decipher the recycling symbols and which plastics can be recycled at the kerbside (vs at specialist facilities) can be challenging. Essentially, the lower the number, the more easily recycled the product is. Most of the new wave of single material plastic coffee bags we’re seeing in the market is, or include LDPE (low-density polyethylene) Plastic Code 4. This code number also covers carrier bags, lined or laminated cardboard containers and some bottles and containers.
The positive thing about this type of material is that there is the most demand for – and research into – developing kerbside recycling facilities for these. As it stands though, in the UK the facilities aren’t yet there, so they require the same commercial facilities as other materials available.
The following links are useful if you need to check what is likely to be accepted as recycling:
On the face of it, this seems like a great, highly sustainable choice. It’s something we’re seeing being used increasingly in the US. However, the word is a bit of a misnomer for these materials in the UK, as compostable coffee bags can’t be put in your home compost bin, they must go to an industrial composter.
As with the plastic materials, the industrial facilities are available to process these, consumers just need to be made aware of where to dispose of them in order for this to happen.
Everything is inherently biodegradable. It’s just down to time and the environment in which they’re biodegrading. Some things degrade in weeks some take millennia. Some companies claim that their product biodegrades in a matter of days and weeks, should it end up in nature or the ocean. However, it only breaks down into smaller parts, which may get digested, passing up the food chain (e.g. microplastics).
PLASTIC ALUMINIUM LAMINATE
Plastic aluminium laminates consist of an aluminium foil layer sitting between (both paper and/or plastic layers). This material combines lightweight, flexible properties, which, once sealed, offer complete protection against gasses (including oxygen), moisture and light. As with all of the materials outlined above, they require a specialist facility to process them.
As you’ll see, whichever material you select to package coffee and retain freshness can’t be processed by kerbside facilities in the UK. There are no claims that appear to trump another. Certainly not that we found throughout our research. Our choice, therefore, came down to design intent and freshness testing. Critically though, in discovering that there was no standout solution, as we’d hoped there would be, we put in place further measures with First Mile to help manage the end of life of our bags (both old and new).
We work with First Mile, an innovative company founded in 2004 that make working with specialist facilities more accessible. Through First Mile we have Mixed Recycling boxes in each of our own shops (please see here for locations) and at our Roastery, for our empty coffee bags to be collected and recycled. We appreciate that this does require the bags to be returned.
First Mile sends our coffee bags (the same goes for compostable cups) to a specialist facility which uses Microwave Induced Pyrolysis to split the component parts of the bags for reuse.
Image credit First Mile - @first_mile
MICROWAVE INDUCED PYROLYSIS
Pyrolysis is a process in which organic material, such as paper or plastic, is heated and broken down in the absence of oxygen. It’s an important waste management tool because it allows for the disposal of industrial and post-consumer waste while producing valuable products that can be used as a chemical feedstock or to generate energy.
With microwave-induced pyrolysis, heat energy is provided in the form of microwaves.
The process can be configured to operate under gentle mechanical conditions in order to extract fragile materials without damaging them. It is powered by electricity, eliminating the need for a chimney stack and providing the option to use a renewable source of energy.
In the process, shredded plastic aluminium laminates are mixed with carbon. When the carbon is exposed to microwaves, it reaches temperatures of up to 1,000 °C in just a few minutes. This heat energy is then quickly and efficiently transferred to the plastic by conduction. The fragile aluminium foil remains undamaged during this process. It can be recovered in solid form, clean and ready for reprocessing. The plastic component degrades to form a mixture of hydrocarbons. This mixture is then cooled down and separated into gas and oil. The gas can be used to generate the electricity required to power the process, and the condensed oils can be sold as fuel or feedstock for speciality chemicals.
As it stands there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer as to the best material to use for coffee packaging. The key thing is to minimise our impact by putting in place tools to appropriately deal with the bags once they’ve been used. This explains why we came to the decision to continue with our aluminium-lined bags, and work closely with First Mile. Our hope is that, with the tide changing, we will see a change in the UK's kerbside recycling facilities over the next few years.
The positive thing is that our industry seems to be trying to do the right thing and making the right moves. After all, the speciality industry is built on the principles of sustainability. The demand is there to make meaningful changes, and research is being done.