Continuing the discussion on packaging in the coffee industry, it is necessary to understand the economic and environmentally complex issues involved in basic decision making.
It is safe to say that thermo-plastic bags are the standard in the specialty coffee industry (for reasons mentioned in my last post). The question is are those reasons good enough to justify the monumental production of waste that is neither recyclable nor compostable? The simple answer is, no.
So what are roasters to do? Let's consider the packaging options available at the moment; paper, re-usable containers, bio-degradable materials, and compostable plastics. Well, how to these options fit a roasters natural desire to protect freshness and quality? Paper is the worst choice available to us in terms of keeping coffee fresh for an extended period of time. Re-usable air tight containers are solid choice, but expensive, process heavy and cumbersome. Bio-degradable materials are more prevalent then ever and do break down in landfills over time, but do not offer much in the way of slowing the oxidization process for the most part. Compostable plastics are produced from renewable resources such as corn starch and can be used in combination with bio-degradable papers to produce a bag that can be sealed thermally, to help stave off the harmful effects of oxidization.
Of all the above options, compostable plastics seems to offer the closest thing to a middle path. While protection for air is noticeably better than simple paper packaging, it does fall far short of the sexy, sweet thermo-foil plastic packaging now dominating the industry (there is no doubt that product quality can be sustained for much longer periods with thermofoil plastics). The most used compostable plastic at the moment is polylactic acid plastic (PLA). derived from renewable resources such as corn starch, tapioca roots or sugarcane. In combination with a paper lining this type of packaging can biodegrade in soil when exposed to natural microorganisms.
For roasters, two key problems arise regarding PLA plastic lined paper packaging. The first, which seems to be the overwhelming reason cited pertains to product freshness. PLA lined paper does not offer enough protection from oxidization, and therefore does not allow coffee roasters to store their product very long after roasting. The other, and far less understood problem has to do with the complicated enviro-economic reality of PLA plastic production and sustainability. I will begin to unpack these issues and more in the next part of the series.