It’s a common scene, one that occurs every morning. With a rapid hand towards the snooze button and a slow yawn, tired bones are roused only by the promise of the soon to be enjoyed cup of joe. With sleepy eyes and slow movements, a fresh coffee pod is picked, popped in and brewed — the aroma slowly bringing about a state of semiconsciousness. The wrapper and pod are then collected and disposed of … in the compost bin? But this is no somnolent oversight; the packaging materials used are sourced from bio-based materials and are certified compostable. This was the vision of Tom Garber, vice president of product development for Rogers Family Coffee.
Rogers Family Coffee is among the nation’s largest gourmet coffee roasters and one of the few remaining family-owned gourmet coffee companies. The San Francisco-based roaster has been in operation for 35 years and offers its major brands at retailers nationwide, along with supplying private label coffee to a number of specialty food stores. The company has long had a commitment to social initiatives, sustainability and environmental stewardship. Over the past 25 years, it has constructed or aided 41 schools, built 940 housing complexes and completed 12 medical clinics in coffee-growing regions. The company operates with a carbon-negative footprint by planting trees and devoting parts of its own coffee plantations to natural jungle growth. The brand’s green coffee is bought only from farmers with whom it has a personal relationship and purchased above Fair Trade prices, prices, sustaining a high quality of life for the farmer, co-op members and for workers on the farms. Rogers also conducts an annual farmers meeting with growers to share best practices in agriculture, sustainability and social responsibility.
Garber sought to extend the company’s sustainability efforts to its packaging: “We wanted to switch to an environmentally friendly material, while maintaining the high quality and value that we have always provided to our customers.”
Changing the packaging format proved to be a challenging endeavor. Whether packing roast or ground, bean or instant coffee, the demands on the packaging are very high. Coffee typically needs a shelf life of 12-18 months, and maintaining the distinctive aroma is essential. Moisture and oxygen can ruin a coffee’s consistency and flavor, and a high barrier to both is crucial to ensure the best quality. Furthermore, coffee contains highly flavored oils which must be contained.
Rogers was preparing to introduce its San Francisco Bay French Roast in pods. It chose this format as the launching pad for its packaging sustainability program.
“We were coming out with a new item that was going up against very wasteful competitors,” says Garber.
The substitution of a plastic-based disposable pod became its goal. The company began development on what would become the OneCup, a single-serve pod with each component adding to the overall renewable-content percentage. The ring is made of poly-lactic acid (PLA), a corn starch-based bio-polymer that can be molded into rigid forms. A top paper-based lid is used for its eco-friendly attributes. Currently, the cup is comprised of a woven polyester mesh; however, there are projects underway to source a bio-based material for this component as well. The unique construction delivers maximum extraction and the flavor that consumers expect, without the use of a rigid plastic cup.
The pods are then contained in the aptly-named “Mother Bag.” Working with Ultra Flex Packaging in Brooklyn, NY, the company developed a compostable flexible bag with the optimum barrier properties needed for coffee. NatureFlex, an advanced family of renewable cellulose-based packaging films developed by Innovia Films, was used to create the multi-layer bio-laminate structure. U.K.-based Innovia Films is known as an innovator in packaging film and has done extensive work with numerous companies in the coffee and tea industry, including Arbor Teas, Pistol and Burnes, and Guayaki.
The individual NatureFlex films used in the construction of the bag are certified as compostable in both industrial and home composting environments, and they offer an alternative to bags made from non-renewable materials.
“The packaging actually breaks down faster than the spent coffee grounds,” says Garber.
The pods are placed into the nitrogen-flushed bags to retain their freshness. Each bag is then placed into a recyclable cardboard box. The result is a complete package that is over 97 percent (by weight) bio-based and compostable.
While the company offers pod-packs in multiple sizes, the 80-count boxes sold through online retailers and big-box stores remain the most popular. Efficiencies gained in packaging have allowed Rogers to offer its 80-pack without an increase in price for the consumer or a decrease in its margin.
Garber is now looking for sustainable solutions for Rogers’ ground and whole bean coffee as well. “Introducing packaging materials based on renewable resources is part of Rogers Family Company strategy. This laminate construction with NatureFlex combines the packaging quality and functionality our premium coffees require and is fully aligned with our company’s sustainability goals.”