What’s the Greenest Coffee Bag?

Posted by Chris O’Brien

Coffee drinkers pay more for packaging, shipping, and advertising than we pay the farmers who grow coffee beans. So how can we pay more to the people and for the product and less for the package? And which kind of package is best for the environment?

Setting aside the issues of shipping and advertising, and ignoring single-serve coffee containers for the moment, the basic retail packaging choice is between a paper bag and a plastic-covered foil bag.

Aargh! The eternal paper versus plastic debate. Hoping to discover once and for all which to choose, I researched this question and reported my findings in Fermenting Revolution. I found that this is a frustrating debate for good reason – there is no clear environmental winner when choosing a paper or plastic bag.

Paper coffee bagPaper
Paper is from a renewable resource – trees. But just because trees are renewable doesn’t mean we’re consuming them sustainably. We axe-down ancient forests and destroy habitat for endangered species, replacing complex ecosystems with tree farms or worse. Today, we have less than half the global forest cover we had at the beginning of settled agriculture ten thousand years ago. In the age of global warming, the role of forests as carbon sequestration sinks has taken on new importance – we need all the trees we can get in order to trap carbon dioxide in hopes of slowing climate change. Unfortunately, we continue on our decline of total forest cover.

Compared to plastic, paper is much heavier. The eco-impacts resulting from this added weight are staggering. According to the EPA, one paper grocery bag requires more than twice as much energy, produces 15 times as much waterborne waste and twice as much atmospheric pollution, as one plastic bag. Though they are theoretically recyclable, Americans chuck four out of five paper bags in the trash. Paper is biodegradable but nearly no-one actually composts them so biodegradability is moot. The vast majority end up locked in landfill where they will stay indefinitely, not biodegrading at all.

Oh, and even if you wanted to compost or recycle your coffee bag, most of them are lined with polypropylene (plastic), so you’re actually getting a paper bag with a plastic bag nested inside it – two for one! Just to keep things complicated, there are exceptions. Some paper coffee bags have no liner, which means they are indeed compostable. Others use a layer of “glassine” which is a dense semi-transparent paper that according to National Envelope is “biodegradable and recyclable.” So if you happen to know that your paper coffee bag is liner-less or uses glassine, and you are willing to compost them – this may be the most environmentally preferable option if you ignore the whole weight issue.

Foil bag

Versus Plastic
Plastic is derived from petroleum and doesn’t even theoretically degrade. At best, plastic bags are recycled, but in reality we only recycle a pathetic one percent of them, tossing out over a hundred billion plastic grocery bags every year. A few manufacturers have started making starch-based plastic bags but they remain prohibitively expensive and account for less than one percent of the market.

But plastic is super cheap, compact and light as air (just think how often you’ve seen them blowing around in it). Its compactness and lightness weigh positively in the shipping formula – light and small means that just one truck can transport as many plastic bags as it takes seven trucks to transport the same number of paper bags.

Drat! Foiled Again
So plastic is drastic and paper is a waster. But hold on, we’re talking about coffee bags not grocery bags. Plastic coffee bags are actually double-bagged just like the paper bags. The inner lining is usually 5 mil polypropylene plastic but the outer layer is aluminum foil. This dual-layer system rules out even the possibility of recycling, plus it adds the complexity of evaluating the environmental footprint of foil. Cripes! This is giving me a headache.

Just to be sure there wasn’t some hidden upside to all this, I called North Atlantic Specialty Bag Co. and a very helpful customer service rep assured me there was no recycled content in the paper, plastic or aluminum of their bags. She also confirmed that the poly-lined paper bags and the poly-lined aluminum bags were not recyclable due to the dual-layer system of each. However, she did say they were soon planning to offer a compostable/recyclable paper option. She didn’t know the construction of these new bags but I suppose they must be the unlined or glassine-lined paper bags I mentioned above.

A Roaster Weighs In
Searching the web for details about bags and looking to see which roasters use what, I found this helpful info from the folks at Cafe Campesino, who give their customers a choice of bags:

Kraft Bags
Our standard packaging for 1-lb. and 2-lb. units of coffee is a biodegradable Kraft paper bag, which can be composted or recycled. Our 5-lb. units of coffee are also packaged in Kraft paper bags, though this size is not biodegradable (it is recyclable), as an internal plastic liner is necessary to support the greater weight during transport. We strongly recommend transferring your coffee into an airtight container upon receiving it.

Foil Bags
To provide for longer shelf life, added hardiness for shipping and for resale venues, we recommend having your coffee packed in our sealed foil bags, each of which (1-lb., 2-lb. and 5-lb.) has a one-way valve to allow the coffee to off-gas without letting air in. Again, we strongly recommend transferring your coffee into an airtight container once the foil bag has been opened.

Presumably, the note about the recyclability versus compostability of the 5 pound plastic-lined paper bag is due to the fact that you can’t simply toss it in the compost bin, but you could remove the plastic liner from the paper bag and recycle each separately.

As far as cost goes, every coffee seller I’ve found who offers both types of bags charges the same price regardless which type you pick. So cost doesn’t appear to be an issue. But there may be a trade off when it comes to quality. Foil bags are better at keeping air away from your beans, which means the coffee stays fresher and retains more of its potential flavor. So if you’re seeking maximum flavor enjoyment, not just a morning jolt, its important to pay attention to exposure to air, though this can be controlled in part by what you do with the coffee once you get it home.

Weight a Minute, the Winner Is . . .
The weight comparison at the beginning was for grocery bags. Since “plastic” coffee bags are actually plastic-lined aluminum foil not just plain old plastic, the preferential lighter weight of plastic disappears. It seems the best option then is an unlined or glassine-lined paper bag.

But wait, there’s one more thing. Paper coffee bags are available in tan or white. The white ones are made of pulp that has extra bleaching (very nasty, toxic processing) and have a coating of clay applied to them.

So, if you buy a pound or two at a time, like most people do, then you should get it fresh from a roaster in a paper bag, transfer it to an airtight container, and compost or recycle the bag. Or if you live near a roaster, ask if you can BYOB – bring your own bag, er, refillable airtight container, and eliminate this damn “econundrum” altogether!

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37 Responses to What’s the Greenest Coffee Bag?

  1. Hey Chris O –
    Nice piece.
    It is safe to say that our #1 sourcing dilemma has been packaging. We can’t find a good alternative that is biodegradable (not too mention something made from recycled materials, which is regulated by the USDA) and also maintains quality. I also wonder about the manufacture of the paper and plastic bags. What are the conditions under which the bags are manufactured? What are the by-products of production?
    I recently learned that a group in North Carolina is in the final stages of R&Ding an eco-friendly package. Larry’s Beans in Raleigh will likely be the first to get their hands on it. The rest of us are anxiously awaiting this new development.
    I’m sure you are aware of the aluminum cans that a few companies are using these days. While they are recycleable, they are very heavy, labor-intensive and expensive plus grocery stores are reluctant to put them on the shelf.

  2. beeractivist says:

    Good point about the cans. Given how little they are used I decided to skip them for now but clearly they should be considered as another option. How do they stack up in terms of cost and do they have quality issues? Can they be vacuum sealed? Any other issues with them?

  3. Chris,
    I think you should do more research about the paper packaging industry before you spread more mis-information. These “ancient forest” you are saying are being felled around the world for paper simply are not. They are being felled for lumber for homes, furniture, fuel, etc. Did you know that 75% of all corrugated boxes in the US are recycled back into more boxes. Those farms you refer to are in places like East Texas that never even had “Old Growth Forest.” They are tree farms plain and simple just like farmers grow corn, soybeans, and wheat we grow pine trees for 12 years and then we harvest them and grow more trees on the same land. The US is a net exporter of pulp not an importer and the vast majority of it is grown on farms.

    • Jeff says:

      Thank Bill for using truth in you statement. I’m from Louisiana where pulp wood and paper mills are plentiful. Wood for paper is a crop just like you said. I get tired of people blaming paper use as the reason the rain forest is going away…

    • Bill,
      You are on to something here. Trees for paper products like paper to write with, toilet paper/tissues, coffee bags/grocery bags, mail ect. are not coming from ancient forests.

      BUT those Ancient Forests are being destroyed a football field a day because of the agricultural farming need of this over-populated world. I just watched Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary Cowspiracy; everyone should watch it.

  4. Melissa says:

    We bag and sell our coffee in PLA-lined (corn-based polymer) unbleached kraft paper bags – with uncoated recycled paper labels printed in soy inks. So there are greener options out there.
    🙂

  5. Jackson says:

    If we could only escape corn!!!!

  6. beeractivist says:

    Jackson – Yeah, I know what you mean, although corn isn’t all bad. It’s a native crop here in North America, the problem is just how much it has come to dominate our agriculture. Corn is good, but so are other things.

    Bill – if you’re saying we’re not removing ancient forests, I’m afraid you are simply missing the facts. Half of the world’s forest cover has been removed since the dawn of agriculture. As of this report (http://news.mongabay.com/2005/1115-forests.html) we were losing 6 million hectares of primary forest annually – that means forests that were not previously being used for lumber.

    And all those tree farms you’re talking about – a tree farm does not a forest make. By way of comparison, imagine going into a bar with a 100 taps of different beer. Then imagine going into the same bar with 100 taps of the same beer. Is it the same bar?

    Cheers,
    Chris

    • Excellent point, well made. It is obviously true that the Ancient Forests are pretty much destroyed. The reasons are long and many. Its a horrible story. Currently, the majority of trees that are cut down in the rain forest is due to Animal Husbandry.

  7. Tim Dunn says:

    Did you know that there is a plastic which is both recyclable and biodegradable? It isn’t the well known hydro-biodegradable plastic known as spudware, which is not recyclable. Apparently, spudware is no longer welcome in commercial quantities at compost facilities, according to Whole Foods. See the alternative at: http://biogreenproducts.biz/ .

    If you are interested in our products, we would be happy to speak with a representative of your organization.

    Thanks,

    Tim Dunn
    http://biogreenproducts.biz/
    360-652-4703

  8. Thomas William Deans says:

    Does anyone know of a good releiable supplier (Canadian or US) of 1 LB Kraft paper coffee bags with a one way valve??

  9. Kurt says:

    We are looking into cans. The benefits to cans is that they are not only recyclable but perhaps more importantly, they are reusable, (Think of old coffee cans in your grandpa’s basement full of nails or as a bait bucket). In packaging, the dilemma we face is how can to respect the work of the farmers by packaging coffee to preserve the highest possible quality while having the lowest possible environmental impact. I hate going through bag after bag after bag knowing that they all end up in a landfill. But, how can we preserve quality and freshness so that we can continue to support the efforts of these small family farms at origin?
    Kurt

  10. Kevin Price says:

    Eako recycle used imported coffee sacks within the UK and make them into 100% recycled new coffee sacks, currently selling at Sainsburys. They are made completely in the UK and use only UK sourced threads. They look great

  11. […] a great article explaining the paper vs plastic of coffee packaging on the Bean Activist […]

    • venk says:

      We (Wabiblo!) managed to solve (for now) our packaging problems by discovering a local supplier of compostable coffee bags made of PLA liner and recycled kraft paper… this means that except for the tin at the top, the rest of the package can be disposed of in the garbage or the compost safely. As well, we located a green label company (gogreen labels) which is supplying us with the greenest labels we could find… for now, I think we found what we were looking for. but we’ll keep an eye out for new ideas. you can check out our blog at http://www.wabiblo.org, where we will continue to discuss any new developments.

  12. Pat says:

    If you all are looking for something to do with those incredibly durable, hard to recycle foil lined coffee bags, please collect them and email me at pbyrd@TRASHeBags.com and I will send a postage paid envelope in which you can mail them back to be upcycled into tote bags.

    Thanks, Pat

  13. Laura says:

    The bags that Larry’s Beans use is made from a biodegradable plastic called Green Film. It is landfill biodegradable. PLA unfortunately is made from corn and corn plastics use more fossil fuels than plastic!! Look up “How Green are Green Plastics.”They also are made from corn using GMO seeds and that is a disaster waiting to happen. Genetically modified crops contain herbicides and pseticicdes in their molecule as well as the same protein deformity found in mad cow disease.

  14. All,
    I recyle (and searching for) used empty coffeebean foilbags from 1 kG (Italian branding!)for making Italian Coffee Handbags (www.italiancoffeehandbags).
    I need a lot of used bags, maybe you all can help me (and support the enviroment).
    By the way: Manetti Caffe (www.manetti.nl) is using coffee bags wich are compostable!!
    Let me know.
    Saluti,
    Alessandro Di Lella
    The Netherlands

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  19. […] plastic lining, plastic, and plastic with foil lining. This isn’t going to be a review of the greenest coffee bag, but if you want to reduce the amount of bags you’re using, rather than curbing the caffeine […]

  20. […] plastic lining, plastic, and plastic with foil lining. This isn’t going to be a review of the greenest coffee bag, or a dissertation on what to do with each type of bag. Today, we’d like to talk about paper […]

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  22. […] plastic lining, plastic, and plastic with foil lining. This isn’t going to be a review of the greenest coffee bag, or a dissertation on what to do with each type of bag. Today, we’d like to talk about paper […]

  23. […] and air tight. I’m not sure if there’s any difference in freshness. Most importantly, they’re recyclable, free, and cute! 0.000000 0.000000 Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  24. topherjamessf says:

    Reblogged this on California Native Plants Garden.

  25. - says:

    Poor shipping cost for cans, unless the packer also rolls and solder (whatever) the cans from flat sheetmetal pieces.
    They are recyclable. Reuse is limited.
    Big coffee retails in plastic”cans”. I think HDPE#2. The lids are probably also HDPE.

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  29. My goodness, you have written this entire article without priortizing the importance of human life/optimal health in your cost analysis. You have not emphasized that plastics contain carcinogenic chemicals that are likely to contribute to the early death of the humans who consume the contaminated products that are IN the bags. Shouldn’t THAT be our initial consideration in making packaging decisions? You have spoken about financial and environmental considerations — which won’t even matter if there are too few well people to buy and transport your money-making product. That’s analogous cigarette manufacturers being concerned about their cost factors and environmental impact while ignoring the fact that their [contaminated] product contributes significantly to the morbidity and mortality of the entire nation. shame-shame

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