The Truth Behind Packaging Buzzwords

The Truth Behind Packaging Buzzwords

Decades of wasteful packaging practices have wreaked havoc on the natural world.

Plastic was invented in the mid-1800s to imitate natural resources like ivory, tortoiseshell and horn. Whilst it may have had noble beginnings designed to protect wildlife, over 150 years on, humanity is dealing with a product that takes centuries to decompose. This has resulted in polluted land and waterways, growing landfills and subsequent release of methane, and harmful microplastics infiltrating countless species across the globe, including humans!

As the world became aware of the multitude of issues surrounding traditional packaging, we began to transition to more environmentally positive alternatives…or so it seemed. 

Today, we delve into the myriad of buzzwords associated with coffee packaging - recyclable, degradable, biodegradable, compostable and more - to help you differentiate the truly planet friendly from the greenwashing*. With this knowledge under your belt, you’ll have the power to make positive environmental impacts with every purchase of coffee and beyond. 

white coffee bag with label 100% recyclable next to blue coffee bag with label fully recyclable


Recyclable packaging means that it can be recycled. However, this does not guarantee the item can go in your recycling bin or that it will definitely be turned into a new product even if disposed of correctly. Different materials - cardboard, glass, aluminium and some plastics - are recycled in different ways and have a different number of times they can be recycled. 

We’ve seen a growing number of ‘fully recyclable’ coffee bags appearing on the Melbourne coffee scene and nation wide. Nearly all of these are considered soft plastic so can only be recycled via Redcycle, a supermarket drop-off service that turns soft plastics into sturdy new products like bench seats and decking. However, the system behind soft plastic recycling is fraught; Redcycle is currently (from November 2022 to time of writing, January 2023) not accepting any new materials meaning all ‘fully recyclable’ coffee bags will be going straight to landfill for the foreseeable future.  

green coffee bag labeled fairtrade organic coffee in compostable pack and carbon neutral next to white coffee bag with carbon neutral label

Carbon neutral

Carbon neutral packaging alludes to packaging with no carbon footprint, in that it offsets as much carbon as it emits. The problem with carbon neutrality in relation to anything is that it is complicated and challenging to calculate. Emissions a company emits can either be direct (e.g. those emitted via company cars), energy indirect (energy purchased in order to operate, like power for an office) or other indirect (as a result of all other manufacturing and supply). Emissions that fall into the ‘other’ category are by far the largest scope, most abstract and hardest to track. 

In order to offer carbon neutral coffee packaging, emissions must be calculated and offset to reflect the entire manufacturing process, transportation and how it will be discarded at end of life. This is an extremely difficult undertaking and without any certification governing the process, it is impossible to prove accuracy.  

white carry bag with green words saying degradable eco bags next to a white plastic bag with label 100% degradable


By definition, degradable means an item is ‘capable of being slowly broken down into simple parts’. Sounds good, right? The reality is that nearly every natural and human made item has the capability of being broken down biologically or chemically. Aside from slowly, degradability does not specify a timeline, meaning the process can take hundreds or even thousands of years. And to degrade into simple parts means that tiny pieces will still remain forever. 

Plastic is considered degradable, but it never fully degrades. Instead, it breaks up into millions of pieces called microplastics that pollute our waterways and environments only to end up being consumed by animals and humans. In no way is this a good thing! So take the words ‘degradable packaging’ as a giant red flag and steer clear of any business trying to promote it as an environmentally friendly option.  

brown biodegradable coffee bag next to white coffee bag made from renewable plant-based materials labeled as biodegradable


Biodegradable packaging is made from materials that bacteria and microorganisms can break down. They usually contain less petroleum-based plastics, and are instead usually made from plant products, animal products or minerals. However, even these ‘bioplastics’ can take as long as regular plastics to break down if not in the right conditions. 

An item’s ability to biodegrade is affected by temperature, oxygen, moisture and light levels - none of which can be accessed if buried in landfill. This means they break down anaerobically which releases harmful methane into the atmosphere. Just as alarming is that there is no guarantee that biodegradable products will not leave toxic waste behind. 

Without any formal certification in Australia, we have no way of knowing what ‘biodegradable packaging’ is made from, what conditions it needs to break down, how long it will take to decompose and whether it will leave any toxic materials behind. So if you see a biodegradable coffee bag advertised, know that there are no guarantees that it is any better for the planet than its regular plastic counterparts.  

black coffee bag with 100% compostable label next to brown compostable coffee bag


Compostable packaging is composed of organic materials - like bamboo, sugar cane, corn or paper - that produces nutrient-rich soil as a result of breakdown. Unlike some biodegradable packaging, compostable packaging leaves no microplastics or toxic residues behind. But beware! If packaging is labelled as compostable (with the green leaf icon), it is certified only as compostable under industrial conditions

Industrial or commercial composting facilities use technology and highly controlled conditions - regulating size of material, temperature, oxygen levels, moisture etc. - to decompose a broad range of products, including some bioplastic, meat, fish and dairy, alongside organic materials. Unfortunately, industrial composting is not easily accessible for most Australians. There are only 150 commercial composting facilities around the country, many of which do not accept compostable packaging, and most councils also refuse to accept it as part of FOGO programs. 

So, if a ‘compostable coffee bag’ is difficult to compost commercially, where will it end up? You guessed it - in landfill with all the other packaging waste. While it will eventually break down under these conditions, harmful methane gas will be released in the process, further contributing to the climate crisis threatening our health, safety and way of life. 

clear bag with herbs labeled as home compostable bag next to black mail satchel labeled as home compostable

Home compostable

Home compostable packaging is that made from natural products - straw, corn, mushrooms etc. - that will completely break down via home composting methods such as worm farms, compost bins or dug into a hole. Products with home compostable certification (a compost bin with a green arrow) have met strict conditions. They are proven to biodegrade by at least 90% within 180 days with no toxic effect on compost, plants and earthworms. The end result will release nutrients into the soil, genuinely returning to the earth in a positive way. 

Our coffee bags are made by Econicpack and are fully home compostable, with the exception of the small freshness valve, which can be put into soft plastics when operating. They have been certified to meet the Australian home compostable standard AS5810, and when tested in our own composts, have taken between 30 days and six months to break down. 

big jar filled with coffee beans next to metal byo container filled with coffee beans on a scale


Arguably the best packaging for the planet is to use what already exists. This could be a long-lasting tupperware container, glass jar or other vessels you have lying around the home. Reusable containers can be used over and over again, removing the complexity and uncertainty surrounding disposal. At our Melbourne coffee roastery, we welcome BYO containers for our coffee. 

Our hot tips:

For sustainable coffee drinking and packaging waste minimisation, follow these steps!

  1. The best coffee packaging is none! Always reuse what you have at home if you can. Look for sustainable coffee roasteries like ours that encourage BYO containers and enjoy the feeling of bringing no more waste into the world.
  2. If there is no option to reuse, look for certified home compostable coffee packaging. While not a silver bullet, packaging of this nature will break down at home to benefit your garden. Our home compostable coffee bags have the AS5810 certification so you can rest assured that it will break down in your compost, worm farm or when dug into a hole.
  3. If you have purchased compostable coffee packaging, remember that it is only compostable by industrial or commercial composting. Use these resources to check your council’s waste services (including FOGO inclusions) or find a composting facility near you. You can also ask the roaster if they can recommend a facility. 
  4. If you have purchased recyclable coffee packaging, ask the roaster how it can be disposed of correctly. Note: some partner with TerraCycle, but they are more likely to tell you to use RedCycle, which is not currently operating.
  5. If you have purchased degradable or biodegradable coffee packaging, this must go in your landfill bin. For this reason, we recommend avoiding it at all costs! 

    * Greenwashing is when an organisation spends more time and money on marketing itself as environmentally friendly than on actually minimising its environmental impact. It's a deceitful marketing gimmick intended to mislead consumers who prefer to buy goods and services from environmentally conscious brands.