As long as there is fresh coffee packaging, there will be aluminium

Fresh coffee packaging is no doubt undergoing an important change: the continued boom in consumption of coffee pods over fresh ground or bean coffee, in particular in Europe, is generating rapid growth for flexible plastic at the expense of flexible aluminium/plastic.

In 2010, flexible plastic unit sales went up by 3% within Europe, while aluminium/plastic declined by 1%. With the price of aluminium laminates and technological progress in the barrier properties of flexible plastic, Euromonitor International questions the future of aluminium in this category.

Aluminium poses sourcing problems, which makes supply and usage rather expensive for fresh coffee packagers and brand owners. So when Douwe Egberts decided at the beginning of the review period to switch its packaging production for its Marcilla ground coffee from aluminium/plastic to 100% flexible plastic in Spain, the move was triggered by a need to renew their machinery, and an opportunity thereby to cut costs.

But the economic recession which Europe has gone through since then, has also shown that consumers are not ready to sacrifice much on product quality: a switch from on-premise to home coffee consumption has certainly benefited coffee pods in flexible plastic packs; but when it comes to coffee beans and ground coffee, flexible aluminium/plastic remains the most widely used pack type in 2010.

The nature of fresh coffee, with attributes such as moisture and density of aroma, makes high preservation barriers necessary. Flexible plastic packs for coffee pods often only act as a marketing tool on the shelf; the capsules themselves, typically rigid plastic or aluminium minicups, are the ones protecting the content from light and oxygen.

In fresh coffee, even if strong innovation activities have enabled noticeable improvements to flexible plastic’s preservation properties, aluminium still stands much higher than flexible plastic can offer on its own. Latest trade interviews indicate that adopting a high quality flexible plastic material as a replacement to aluminium remains very expensive and inefficient; not only does it fail to match the preservation qualities of aluminium, but it is also not enough to lure consumers in: fresh coffee users still expect to see and feel the aluminium layer either outside, or inside when opening the pack.

But what about the problem of flexible aluminium/plastic’s environmental impact? Flexible plastic is particularly light and can also be recycled or burnt in energy from waste facilities. By contrast, using two different materials (dual-layer) is heavier to transport and also means that sorting must be carried out before the recycling process can even be envisaged.

Pyrolosis is an option for aluminium laminates, but facilities for this process are not yet common. Also, the first thing to consider is that when it comes to flexible packaging of any material, actual recycling rates also remain extremely low overall.

Another element of answer could be that the real environmental footprint of a pack is very difficult to measure and that fresh coffee brand owners and packagers may benefit from a long term campaign to improve their image as more environmentally conscious, just as liquid carton (also multi-layer) advocates have managed to do.