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 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.
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:
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.
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!