By Nina Goodrich
One early introduction to sustainability back in 2005 was a question about the lifecycle impacts associated with a cup of coffee.
The answer was a surprise then and continues to be a surprise today. “What do you think has the biggest impact on the environmental footprint of a cup of coffee?” Is it:
a.) Coffee production
b.) Coffee packaging
c.) Coffee brewing
When the same question was asked of a room of coffee professionals attending the National Coffee Association (NCA) Summit in Austin, Tex., the room was evenly split.
The answer is the brewing. Heating water uses lots of energy, so the more efficiently the water can be heated the lower the environmental footprint. Processing is a close second, and packaging is a distant third. Single serve coffee machines vary but the ones that heat on demand and only heat the amount of water required by the cup have lower footprints than those on standby. Traditional brewing practices often result in move coffee than can be consumed. The wasted coffee and heated water adds to the footprint.
Packaging is actually a small part of the complete footprint. Single serve packaging is larger than bulk packaging but the savings in heated water and wasted coffee more than compensate for the slightly larger footprint. That said, single serve coffee packaging is very popular and the packaging has gained a lot of attention from consumers -- it needs a better “next life” strategy.
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition has developed a definition of sustainable packaging and a guide for sustainable packaging development. There is no one perfect solution. The guide describes three key strategies for sustainable development:
The first is sourcing. Is there an opportunity to use certified fibers or recycled content? Are biopolymers an option? Certified fibers come from forests that are sustainably managed. Recycled fibers and recycled polymers provide markets for recycled materials and lower the environmental footprint of the packaging. The environmental savings can be very significant. Biopolymers have lower carbon footprints and they are renewable. Some biopolymers are also compostable.
The second strategy involves packaging optimization. The packaging is designed to protect the product so it’s important not to reduce package to the point that damage occurs or the shelf life of the product is compromised. Optimization can include changes in shapes and sizes as well as “light weighting” and designing for recovery.
The third area focuses on recovery. Can the package be recovered? What are the key considerations to help with recyclability and recovery? What are the options? This can include using a single resin instead of a multilayer, or selecting a polymer that has a viable market. Avoid mixing materials, consider making all the components out of a single material. In all cases the total system has to be considered. The packaging includes the coffee pods, and outer wraps, pouches, and boxes.
Two strategies are emerging for single serve coffee pods: recycling and composting.
The EPA found reducing food waste in landfills represents a significant opportunity to lower our environmental footprint. Food in landfills produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Keeping pods and coffee out of landfill is a significant opportunity.
Single-Serve Sustainability A surprising life-cycle assessment
Small packaging is not a priority for recycling facilities.
The road to recyclability entails five steps.
The first is design for recyclability. Packaging needs to be designed so that the coffee and the pod can be separated. Many current pods are made of multilayer materials that do not have value in the recycling stream and can be considered contaminants stream.
Pods are often sealed with metal lids that interfere with recovery. Design considerations need to include lid and coffee removal. A single resin is best for recovery, and polypropylene is currently the resin with the highest market value that also has the performance properties that will allow it to work in this application.
The second step is recycling access. Consumers need to have access to recycling specific types of materials for the materials to be considered recyclable. Consumer access is growing for plastic cups and containers but more communities need to be encouraged to accept these materials. The industry will need to work with a variety of organizations to expand access.
The third step is sorting and recovery. Today’s municipal recycling facilities (MRFs) are not focused on small package recycling. They are optimized to get the high value materials and larger containers off the sorting line. Many MRFs have to hand sort materials along the line. Small packages are difficult and time consuming to pick off the line. In recent years MRFs have added optical sorters. There is an opportunity to refine the use of optical sorters to identify and sort smaller packages. Until this is accomplished, the number of small packages reaching their final destination will not be optimized. When materials end up in the wrong destination they can become contaminants. Small packages can also be lost in the sorting process and end up with the materials that go to the landfill.
The fourth step is re-use. For polymer materials to be recycled, there needs to be markets and applications for the next use. The United States has robust material markets for PET, HDPE, and PP.
The fifth step is understanding the FTC green guides and making accurate claims. The SPC has developed a How2Recycle label that helps brands understand all of the steps required and has created iconic labels to help consumers understand how to recycle all of the components of a package. The label provides clear and concise information that is compliant by leveraging access to recycling data and SPC’s expertise on recycling.
The SPC is currently conducting an access study to update the consumer access to recycling information on over 40 material types. To make a widely recycled claim over 60% of consumers need to have access to recycling the package and the package needs to demonstrate significant recoverability. If access is available but sortation and recovery is not ideal a lesser claim of check locally can be used.
Composting is an alternate to recycling. The EPA has set a goal to reduce food waste by 50% by the year 2030. One of the goals of this initiative is to divert food waste from landfills to industrial uses and composting. As the infrastructure to capture food waste for composting develops it is critical that compostable packaging is part of the solution.
Compostable packaging includes paper and some bioplastics. The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) provides a certification for packaging that is acceptable in industrial composting facilities. The SPC has been working with the supply chain to develop a How2Compost label to help consumers determine when a package is compostable. It’s important that compostable packages do not end up in landfills or in the recycling stream.
Composting infrastructure that accepts packaging is not common today. The hope is that as it develops we will be able to recover both the package and the coffee. Any compostable packaging claims made today will have to include qualifiers to insure consumers understand that industrial facilities may not exist in their area and that they shouldn’t recycle compostable packaging.
Recycling and composting are pathways to more sustainable single serve coffee packaging. Neither is perfect but both provide future promise of sustainability. It will take the complete supply chai working together to make these solutions a reality.
Nina Goodrich is executive director of GreenBlue and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.