Coffee Bags: A Ghost Story

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I recently finished The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s a great read about a tangle of characters who deal with the fallout of a Ponzi scheme and the disappearance of a woman at sea. The links between the characters are tenuous with estranged siblings, a pretend marriage, and a workplace built on fraud, but the characters all share a singular experience: they are haunted by ghosts. It really resonated with me, not because I am dealing with a poltergeist, but rather because we are updating our bags and I worry about little bits of them lingering and lurking in trash heaps, living on endlessly like ghosts.

As I have written about in the past, running a roaster produces a lot of trash and given the one-use nature of bags, finding eco-friendly options remains a top priority. When I started Quietly, everything was precarious. While I wanted some branded bags, it is hard to do when you are unsure if anyone even wants to buy a single bag. For ‘stock bags’, I reached out to a number of suppliers, and we ended up with ‘omnibiodegradable’ bags from TekPak in Hamilton.

Speaking of ghosts, my search criteria was focused on a bag’s past, present, and future. In terms of past: how traceable are the bag’s materials? Are they renewable? What are the manufacturing conditions? In terms of present, roasted coffee is fragile. I write about all the aspects of aging here, but the takeaway is that you need a properly sealed bag for freshness and a tasty cup. Its valve should let CO2 out while also preventing oxygen from entering. Its layers should ensure shelf stability but also not impart any papery flavours. And lastly, you need a design that ensures you can communicate the story of the producers and the technical details of the coffee (varietal, processing, etcetera). In terms of the future, once the bag is empty: do we dispose of it via compost, recycling bin, or landfill? How long does it take to break down? And what are the greenhouse gas implications and chemical remnants created while decomposing?

Our 1.0 stock bags did well on environmental fronts: they used an organic additive to initiate the degrading process when exposed to soil or water. The long-chain molecules of their plastic broke down quickly and the company had independent labs verify the process in landfills. They were however terrible in terms of workflow. The bottom of the bag was not flat and in those early days, I was hand-weighing everything. They would constantly tip over, spilling all their precious contents. And the top had to be folded tight or else at cafes, they would unfurl and given their even footing, constantly cascade towards the floor.

After too many late nights endlessly filling and spilling bags, I realized that enough people wanted to drink Quietly that I could order up some customized bags! Unfortunately, TekPak did not offer a flat bottom option due to the way their seams fit together. So, I cast a wide net and tried to find the best environmental option with the dream being a highly traceable bag that was compostable both in city and backyard, and made from renewable resources. Easy right? Email after email, call after call, message after message, I realized that the only truly compostable options would not work for coffee because they are understandably flimsy and I needed a strong exterior, a food grade liner, a valve to allow degassing, and something to keep the bag sealed.

A lot of manufacturers offered up ‘biodegradable plastic’ options. An important aside here, biodegradable and compostable are often used interchangeably but differ greatly. Compostable would mean a bag breaks down quickly through simple microbial activity and does not produce toxic materials. Its end result is carbon dioxide, water, and biomass. Biodegradable on the other hand describes anything that breaks down a significant amount, but that timeline is vague and does not outline any toxic by-products. Thus, all things compostable are biodegradable but not all things biodegradable are compostable.

Eventually, I settled on bags made from polylactic acid or PLA. It is made from fermented starch from crops such as corn or potatoes. These are a subset of the larger ‘bioplastic’ world, which are often considered compostable. In other words, microbes would turn these bags, along with your banana or apple core, into a simple non-toxic biomass. I pestered potential companies for certifications and eventually found one using external labs. At the time, the only major downside was no PLA zippers, so we would need a tin tie – but given all the pros, it was the best option. The Quietly 2.0 bag went into production!

We did a relatively small run of 20k and were very excited to finally have a bag that stood up on its own – literally and figuratively. It had our logo and even a little bit of our aesthetic flair with the homage to the kettle and our hallmark blue colour. We were nearing the end of our first year and demand was escalating fast, so I felt a bit of panic about our quickly diminishing stock. While I was happy with the design, it didn’t completely encapsulate the Quietly feel.

The whole idea of Quietly remains: move to the countryside, roast the coffee that I want to drink everyday, source from producers who share our ethical mandate, and ground it in my experience and memories of coffee. So armed with paper and pencil, I sketched out a bag that would be more on brand. To quote the Glass Hotel, I wanted to distill the notion of quietly, which exists as a memory “but it’s a memory so vivid that there’s a feeling of time travel, of visiting the actual moment.” That connection of place, labour, and sensory experience that exists in the cup.

After an actual graphic artist sifted through my very basic drawings, bag 3.0 hit the printers! I had buried numerous bags in my backyard and had been receiving positive feedback on the materials, so the concerns of past and future – where the bag came from and where it would go – seemed resolved. And I felt like the design was finally settled too, given these new bags tied together the crop-to-cup idea with the coffee plant and the kettle visually symbolizing this partnership. After all, I am only able to roast coffee because of the labour of producers and I approach it in a way inspired by my subjective experience. So, we did a much bigger order with a company that produced even better PLA certifications from independent labs.

As most things that seem too good to be true, I started having my doubts about PLA. Or to quote the Glass Hotel, “one of our signature flaws as a species: we will risk almost anything to avoid looking stupid”. I unearthed the bags from my backyard and while some of the layers were gone, the liner and valve seemed to be almost completely intact. I will also take the L and say that I was quite ignorant of the municipal guidelines for composting in major cities. For example, Toronto’s compost program does not accept “compostable plastic”. While Ottawa accepts plastic bags in their compost (they are diverted to landfills), bioplastics are rejected from their Orgaworld facility. Vancouver, Winnipeg, Halifax, and Calgary are all the same. In fact, no major city in Canada wants bioplastics because they do not break down in the current systems and, in fact, contaminate the systems.

So, what about in the landfill? PLA and other similar compostable plastics require high heat, which are only available in specific industrial composting facilities and otherwise do not break down. In fact, according to recent studies like “Environmental performance of bioplastic packaging on fresh food produce: A consequential life cycle assessment”, they have a bigger impact than traditional plastics (so the ghost of the past returns to haunt) and, without proper waste diversion, do not compost. Moreover, they are toxic according to studies by scientists like Authur Hang, who suggest they have the exact adverse effects as conventional plastic (ghost of the future is back with a vengeance). In water, they do even worse and, sadly, a lot of garbage ends up in the ocean. Essentially, unless we have this really specific set of conditions, which would be great but we lack, PLA is trash.

You might be thinking, Lee, the three R’s. Recycle those bags! Indeed, I investigated recycling options for bags, but they only actually reach the stream if they are a single material. Add a sticker to one of those bags: it is statistically getting diverted to the landfill. In Ontario the actual diversion statistics are depressing (and getting worse year to year), as most blue box items end up in the dump. If you ever see a #7 as the recycling symbol, it usually means ‘lol greenwashing’. For coffee bag recycling to work, I would need every home brewer to rip off that sticker and basically get every stretchy bit of glue from the ‘single material plastic’ for it to be properly recycled. Also, recycling plastic versus things like aluminum, does not have a good track record.

To quote Mandel, “we had crossed a line, that much was obvious, but it was difficult to say later exactly where that line was crossed”. I am deeply uncomfortable running a business based on resource extraction and profits. Yet, I attempt to ‘do better’ with every choice related to Quietly. For 4.0, I realized that these compost streams in cities are not changing anytime soon (or probably ever), nor can a backyard compost create the heat needed for PLA. So, I went back to basics: past, present, future. I need a bag to protect my coffee because it is the product of intense labour and expertise from my incredible producer network. But comes with a substantial consequence: it means I need a bag with features that will destroy the environment…

Bag 4.0 might seem less victorious that the previous iterations but it might be the most realistic. I went to TrciorBraun and their Biotre material. It is 60% compostable with all renewable valve and film layers. They were the best in terms of saying: this is where these materials originate, this is how the bag protects the precious cargo, and this is the timetable for breakdown in the landfill. I am happy to not have a tin tie and that we could carry much of our design over. The mere fact we could only print a few colours versus the broader range of colours on our old bags is reflective of the actual reality of the materials. So, starting next week: our new bags will go out in the world!

Unless we install a small, kind capitalism (everyone remembers Ralph Nader, right?) and people bring jars to the roaster, selling coffee is going to be actively destructive to the environment. I realize that at this point, there are over 100k ghosts pursuing me through my trail of half rotten, Quietly-emblazoned bags. So what to do? At this point, we should at least stop buying coffee from people that do not care at all. Seriously, how can companies still use single-use plastic without any thought? Moreover, we need to push back against greenwashing. It turns out that the notion ‘PLA is great’ with that major asterisk that ‘it requires a fictional level of industrial composting’ is horrible because it legitimately does not exist in Canada. It is actually quite reminiscent of that Ponzi scheme in Ghost Hotel…

So what is Quietly 5.0? Well I am doing my best, but the stakes are insurmountably high. I think we need to challenge our senses of scale, fund waste management, seek more certifications and lab work, and stop assuming there is an easy solution. To quote Mandel, “give me quiet… give me forests and ocean and no roads… give me the sound of wind in cedar branches, give me mist rising over the water, give me the view of green branches from my bathtub in the mornings. Give me a place with no people in it, because I will never fully trust another person again”. Myself included.