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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