Confronting Plastic Pollution at Specialty Coffee Expo in New Orleans

By Matthew Renda


Littorary - coffee plant seedling held in palm

The world of specialty coffee gathered in New Orleans this month and it was clear from those in attendance that the coffee industry is increasingly focused on sustainability, and plastic pollution in particular.

“The specialty coffee industry is aware of the problems regarding plastic pollution, for sure,” said Julie Kratzer, the owner of the Green Pod Coffee Packing. “We are aware of the process start-to-finish, so we are looking for sustainable processes that begin with the farmers and end with the person drinking the coffee.”

Green Pod Coffee Packing seeks to give customers who relish the convenience of single-serve coffee machines like Keurig the opportunity to do so without feeling like they are contributing to the growing problem of plastic pollution.

“The plastics are not being recycled and many people are beginning to realize that just by putting the pod in the right bin, it’s not completing the chain,” Kratzer said.

Green Pod is approaching the problem by offering a single-use pod made from compostable paper materials and a PLA-based synthesized from renewable feedstock in lieu of traditional polymer-based plastics that rely on petroleum products for production.

PLA was touted by several organizations looking to burnish their sustainability bona fides at the Specialty Coffee Expo, held in New Orleans, Louisiana from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3.

Steeped Coffee, a company also seeking to make single-serve coffee products without the waste issues, makes sure that the tea bag-like material it uses is compostable, while the outside packaging is made from -- you guessed it -- PLA.

“This is a big time solution,” said Leo Betancourt, director of sales with Steeped Coffee.

Green Pods sources their PLA-based plastic from a factory in Italy that uses corn based material as its main ingredient.

They also use paper filters created by Ahlstrom-Munksjo, a firm headquartered in Helsinki, Finland that specializes in creating sustainably crafted products that are easily compostable.

“The industry trend is shifting toward sustainability,” said Derek Chatman, a sales manager with Ahlstrom-Munksjo.

Chatman said that presently the European market is really driving the overall industry toward a more environmentally conscious direction, although the United States is starting to become increasingly aware of issues around plastic pollution and the like.

Another company at the expo, Elevate Packaging, produces compostable packages and labels for coffee producers. Once the coffee is produced, instead of being diverted to the landfill, customers can simply put the material in the compost pile.

“We are putting these materials back into the earth, putting it in the soil and using it to grow more food,” said Lucy Anderson, a sustainability specialist with Elevate Packaging. “The goal is to reduce plastic waste and enrich the soil.”

The price tag for doing this is still fairly steep for some of the coffee producers and roasters attending the expo.

“I think we see more and more products like this coming and it’s great for the industry, but I can’t afford to pay five times more for my packaging right now,” said Ahadu Woobshet, a coffee producer out of Ethiopia. “We are just trying to survive.”

Woobshet said he could absorb a 5% or 10% markup to tend to environmental concerns in the supply chain, but anything more will threaten his business and prevent him from supporting the farmers and producers in his network that rely on business activity for their survival and prosperity.

“If it impacts the value proposition, it will hurt our other initiatives, like fair trade principles,” he said.

Anderson understands the cost constraints of her customers and said the cost of her packaging, while not cheap, will only come down in price as the company is able to scale up and use volume to decrease its margins. While skepticism could be in order, this is exactly the principle that has rendered once highly expensive renewable energy processes, in some cases, now competitive with fossil fuel alternatives. Eventually, doing business the green way not only salves the conscience but fattens the wallet too.

That principle is what drives us here at Littorary to create a product that enhances the taste experience of coffee and other hot beverages protects human health and helps transition the coffee industry to a position with more environmental sustainability at the forefront.

Littorary is developing durable and sophisticated products that rival the convenience of plastics without the environmental burden. We believe technology and design innovations can revolutionize how Americans and the world consume products in concert with the health of the environment. Please stay tuned to our website, blog, and upcoming Kickstarter page as we unveil a product fully capable of providing the convenience and sustainability that will consign the concept of disposable plastics to the garbage heap of history.

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