The Search for Sustainable Packaging

A red bag of organic fair trade coffee

We’ve been selling organic, fairly traded coffee since 1986 and our coffee bags are without a doubt one of our most recognizable products. When you’re in the grocery aisle, those bright red mylar bags are hard to miss.

But those red mylar bags are single-use and destined for the landfill in every municipality we sell them in. We are on a mission to change that.

Seeking a Righteous Alternative

We’re not on this path alone. Packaging is a clear opportunity for companies wanting to offer more sustainable options. And for good reason — 30% of US household trash on average comes from product packaging (Allaway et al pg. 5). Equal Exchange’s Environmental Sustainability Committee has been tracking our impact on various environmental metrics since 2015 and because of that we know about 30% of our company’s solid waste tracked goes to a landfill, much in the form of mylar coffee bags. Unfortunately, in seeking a righteous alternative, we’ve discovered that there are no simple solutions.

Compostable options have been leading the way in terms of alternative coffee packaging, so we’ll focus on them. Biotrē, made by Pacific Bag, accounts for coffee’s need for shelf stability with paper-based bags that have a lining of PLA, a plastic made from plant materials instead of petroleum. There’s a good article on Biotrē here.

But based on our research, this material could be problematic for two reasons.

A worker puts bags of coffee into a box

The Downsides of Compostable Packaging

First, most of these bags never actually get composted. Yard debris compost facilities rarely if ever accept packaging. Facilities that accept food waste and yard waste together are more accommodating, but still about half of all food waste composters won’t accept compostable plastics, and only an estimated 4% of US households have access to pickup food waste composting collection (Platt et al, Allaway et al pg 17). For example, many of our worker-owners live in Portland, Ore. which is one of those municipalities that only accepts food waste for composting. So, if they bought a Biotrē bag they would either have to compost it in their own backyard heaps or put it in the landfill. Any compost made with compostable packaging or utensils cannot be used on organic farms according to USDA standards, because they are considered synthetic inputs — much of which is derived from GMO corn (Sullivan).

Second, there is the full life cycle of environmental impacts that packaging has (beyond just its disposal) to consider. In 2018 The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) released a comprehensive review of academic studies on packaging covering the previous 20 years and concluded that “compostable packaging that is composted does not consistently fare better than non-compostable packaging that is either landfilled, incinerated or recycled” across a wide array of environmental criteria (Allaway et al pg 11-12). The report goes on to cite that “higher impacts for compostable options are due to several factors, including higher production-related emissions” (Allaway et al pg 12) and the fact that composting doesn’t enjoy the “higher benefits of recycling,” (Allaway et al pg 13) which reuses materials, thereby cutting down on resource extraction. Biotrē was not evaluated in any of the studies covered by the DEQ’s review and may have lower production-related emissions than the compostable packaging that was studied, but we do not know.

Even if it is, we come back to the limited infrastructure for composting.

Where Does it All Go?

Some companies and thinkers in this arena have been adopting a “build it and they will come” approach, suggesting that if more and more companies adopt compostable packaging, more composting facilities will be built to handle the demand. We don’t know if that will happen. We do know that recently several Pacific NW composting facilities have stopped accepting compostable food service ware (which is different from packaging, which this post is about, but still telling) and released this press release on why. Even if waste management caught up and most “compostable” packaging was able to be composted, we’d have the higher energy inputs for alternatives to consider. Furthermore, viewing this issue solely from a greenhouse gas emissions perspective, David Allaway (DEQ) says, “If Oregon could recycle or compost 95 percent of its waste (all waste, not just packaging), we’d reduce [Oregon’s] greenhouse gas emissions by about six percent” — driving home again the fact that the greatest energy impact of any packaging material is incurred upstream at the time of its manufacture, and that recycling and composting are helpful but insufficient by themselves.

There are well-intentioned people on both sides of the compostable packaging debate, but it is our view at Equal Exchange that we need to keep searching for a more environmentally sound solution, ideally one that is recyclable. We’re keeping an eye out for one, and will continue evaluating compostable options and considering any that turn out to be lower-impact at the production stage.

This article was co-written by Equal Exchange worker-owners Ellen Mickle and Lincoln Neal.  Questions? Email Ellen: emickle@equalexchange.coop

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Karen Marie Seabrook | 31st May 20

    Have you explored the option of re-usable containers. The customer would buy/own and be responsible to bring the clean container to the bulk food distributor to get their product-coffee or anything. The customer would bear the brunt of the cost of manufacturing the container but would get a cool sustainably manufactured with a low carbon foot print container PLUS they would know that they are supporting a worthy cause…Equal Exchange and lowering their lifetime carbon footprint. No extra cost should go to the farmer. and maybe a donation to Equal Exchange could be included…?

  2. Lee B. | 20th Apr 20

    Since the tea packaging is not ideal, have you considered selling bulk tea leaves in some type of recyclable container?

    • Kate Chess | 23rd Apr 20

      Hi Lee. Thank you so much for reaching out. The answer is YES, we have actually sold loose tea in recyclable containers in the past. Sadly, the products never took off and we ultimately had to discontinue them because they just weren’t selling. Hopefully we can revisit this type of product in the future at some point. We are glad to know that you would be interested! More information on our current tea packaging materials can be found here: https://shop.equalexchange.coop/pages/our-packaging

  3. Joshua Renkin | 15th Jan 20

    Good article, but some of the main reasons I try and use compostable packaging is not because of what happens at the waste center. Currently composting and recycling efforts are very far from satisfactory. Most thing end up in the landfill OR THE ENVIRONMENT. It it this latter outcome that makes me want to try to use compostable items. When the bag ends up in the ocean, it stays there as a potential problem until buried by sediment, where it may stay for far longer. A compostable bag may degrade in natural environments and be less of a long term risk.

  4. Diana Hulet | 19th Nov 19

    Hello! I’m in the midst of taking multiple classes on sustainability and just read research about your company’s commitment to Fair Trade. I applaud this, however, I’m still so dismayed by our red bag of coffee in the cabinet. Have there been any further advances in packaging? I believe you sell your coffee in bulk in Portland grocery stores, so there’s my option, which I will happily choose! Thanks for your work, and if you have any other new info, please pass it on.

  5. google | 21st Oct 19

    Good read

  6. Trudy | 9th Oct 19

    The excitement of receiving my bulk coffee purchase was substantially curbed when I discovered that the 5-lb bag is mylar, not foil, and cannot be recycled. I suppose it could be reused, but for what I don’t know. Darn!

    It is a challenge when grocery shopping to avoid plastic but for some foods, canned is an option.

    Is it time to go back to coffee in cans? I’m old enough to remember the aromatic thrill of opening such cans … probably of ground coffee. I was a child and not allowed to drink coffee then.

  7. Carolee | 1st Oct 19

    I am glad to hear the tea bags are of natural fiber. My concern is that it seems the individual paper wraps, however, are lined with a thin plastic as I find them in my compost and am very disheartened. Is there a way to do away with this lining.

    • Kate Chess | 3rd Oct 19

      Hi Carolee. Thanks for your comment — I’ll pass it on to our product team. The packages are lined to keep the tea fresh and shelf-stable, but we’re always looking for more ecological options.

  8. Andy | 29th Sep 19

    I just saw an article about plastic microparticles in tea bags. Could you please let us know about your tea bags?

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