Packaging and Landfills

Earlier I said that PLA lined paper packaging is simply the better choice for roasters today. But the reasons for this are not necessarily easy to discern.  It takes a broad perspective of the coffee industry and the renewable resource industry to see this.  For instance, the scale of production is a problem; how do we produce enough PLA plastic and at what cost?  What are the actual environment impacts of compostable plastics from production to consumption?   Each question begets another.

I urge you to spend a few minutes and research this topic online.  Feel free to follow up and contact us, we think this is an important issue facing our society today.  Throughout the course of my own research I have drawn a few conclusions.  First, it seems likely that current energy costs required to manufacture equivalent amounts of PLA plastic to tradition petroleum based plastic is nearly equivalent.  Combine that with the ongoing R&D into compostable plastic technology and it seems likely that more and more appealing options will continue to be developed.

Traditional petroleum based plastics have the benefit of permanently capturing carbon, and compostable plastics present the very real problem of producing methane and carbon as they biodegrade.  So it seems that landfills will need to be redesigned to handle more methane production (see diagram). Another factor we need to address is that producing more PLA plastics will mean taking more food away from production (as corn is the primary source of PLA at the moment) and this at a time when climate change is expected to decrease global food production over time. It seems evident that a wide scale transition to biodegradable packaging will need to involve a massive shift towards more technical landfills and compost facilities. Global food production must be considered.

This is a complex issue, and its consequences transcend industrial sectors.  Essentially, this issue must be seen within an even larger context of social, economic and political transition towards renewable energy and resource production.  I am embarrassed to admit my industry has so far failed to address these complex issues.  All the while packaging remains a huge component of every coffee business in the market.  

I said earlier that a lot of my peers in the coffee industry are as much in the business of selling packaging as they are selling coffee.  This is a sad statement. When we spend thousands upon thousands of dollars a year on graphic design and advertising; tens of thousands of dollars a year on custom packaging that make our retail product look so good the consumer will want to eat the bag - we overlook the absurdity of producing something that will never biodegrade or be recycled to give the customer 350 grams of coffee.  

It is time that coffee roasters and all manufacturers of consumable commodities began investing in renewable energy.  Let us forgo our instagram feeds, our hype trains and re-write our business plans to include a more conscientious approach to manufacturing. Let us broaden the discussion to include our customers, our vendors, our city council members, or provincial and federal officials. We have influence in our markets, and we can impact decision making in our societies.

ryan arcand