Why we changed our packaging

From plastic, to paper: A move toward sustainability

Simply put, we changed our retail packaging to eliminate plastic because it's the single biggest thing we can do as roasters for the environment.

First, a bit of framing: The single biggest source of emissions in the coffee industry comes from cafes running hot water boilers and machines. The second biggest source is actually coffee farming, and particularly fertilizer usage/greenhouse gasses from rotting coffee cherry. On this point we aim to reduce impact by buying coffee from biodiverse, minimal fertilizer farms and prioritizing naturally processed coffees over washed (a post on that to follow soon!). We as roasters are the third biggest source of emissions and we have to consider how to minimize our own impact.

We think that plastic free packaging is the biggest step we can take by far. Initially,  Skylark used recyclable plastic bags, specifically the No. 4 low-density polyethylene that can only be recycled at limited locations and made into things like cheap  supermarket carrier bags — and that's just the best case scenario. In reality, many councils in the UK don’t collect No. 4 plastic (inlcuding ours in Brighton) and some reports say that less than 5 percent of them get recycled at all as they're difficult for recycling machines to process. Not only are many of these bags going into landfill, all of them are still made from petrochemicals (and virgin plastics at that). No matter what you do with them downstream, this type of plastic supports drilling for oil to produce them. As a company that’s on track to ship 50,000 retail units this year, that’s a lot of additional pollution.

The problem with compostables

Meanwhile, supposedly compostable ‘eco-plastic’ options aren’t really compostable at all except in an industrial facility, and even fewer of these facilities exist while there’s often no real way to get the packaging shipped there in the first place. Even where this does happen, this ‘industrially compostable’ material does not turn into compost (biomass) but primarily into CO2, H2O, and methane. In other words, recyclable and compostable packaging that has any type of plastic (plant based or otherwise) remains mostly a scam that degrades the planet.

But plastic bags are popular for a reason. Specialty coffee’s “freshness over everything” mantra is grounded in the reality that old coffee often tastes bad, and plastic does keep coffee fresher. So does plastic-free packaging require a trade-off? Yes, definitely. We think our new paper coffee bags decrease coffee's peak freshness from 3-4 months down to 2-3 months because they aren’t resealable (a fairly recent innovation) and they also don’t have plastic air valves. Still, in a year where we’re forecasted to ship 40,000 retail units of coffee, we’d effectively be creating 38,000 pieces of polluting plastic with an industry standard coffee bag design. We couldn’t do it, and we think the drawbacks are a worthwile tradeoff.

See, we are a charity coffee roasters built on the premise of doing the right thing. It wouldn't make much sense to support environmental restoration while continuing to put plastic into the soil and seas. If we can't sacrifice a bit of convenience to protect the environment, how can we expect for-profit businesses or consumers to do so? We’re also growing at around 100% per year so it felt urgent to address our packaging now before it becomes a bigger problem.

Our current best solution

Our new boxes are just varnished paper (which isn't particularly new or interesting). However, the paper liner bags are very new and are coated on the inside with a 14-micron layer of PVAL, which is an alcohol-based compound used to make medicines and drugs more water soluble. It's food safe and actually helps the bag compost naturally better than if it weren't there. This coating is so thin that the bags are still classified by governing bodies as "just paper", and are certified for normal paper recycling since the layer of PVAL will easily break down in any recycling context. We did more than a year of research to comclude that these are by far the best product currently available — the bags are paper recyclable AND legitimately home compostable, while we can still heat seal them as a legal and food-safe coffee packaging.

At these links we've put all of the composting certificates just to demonstrate we're backing up what we say. We also ran extensive composting tests with these on our own farm in West Sussex to confirm that they will indeed break down. If you're interested in PVAL as a material, we can also send you some interesting studies on how it behaves in both the human body (when used in compounding drugs), or how it's safe and beneficial in composting and won't contribute to ocean plastic or landfill. The inks used in printing are non-toxic and the stickers on the outside of the boxes have no plastic content, so those are safe to compost as well. 

We're still hunting for better ideas

This packaging solution could be better, we’re still talking to manufacturers to improve upstream sustainability (i.e. the source materials for the paper used to make the bags and boxes). In line with this, we’re also working to find a better solution for kilo bags (since the paper/PVAL combo isn't strong enough for that much coffee) and if you know of any good solutions to this problem we are always keen to hear ideas!

In a nutshell, it seems hard to imagine environmental progress if we in consuming countries don't make actual sacrifices. Losing the convenience of resealable bags and cutting our coffee’s shelf life (in the bag) from 16 to 10 weeks actually seems like the least we could do. For longer storage, storing coffee in a jar or tupperware is an easy fix. Let us know what you think.