As conscientious food choices go, coffee offers us a lot of them. Most visibly, in the areas of fair or direct trade, and sustainable farming. But what about the waste?
Though coffee is itself an organic, biodegradable product (it's fruit!) few of us live near enough to the source to eliminate the necessary evil of packaging. But as the coffee industry evolves into a more and more thoughtful direction, many specialty roasters are exploring the world of ecologically sensitive, compostable or biodegradable bags to hold their beans. Roasters like San Francisco's Wrecking Ball and Four Barrel, Portland's Heart, and New York City's Joe and Irving Farm have all introduced environmentally friendly bags into their retail repertoires. But do they work?
Yes and no, but mostly yes. First of all, no coffee bag worth its salt is going to be fully compostable and still keep your coffee fresh. In order for roasted coffee to age properly, gases have to be allowed to escape without oxygen (which has a deteriorative effect on the freshness of the bean) getting in. That's why your bags usually come with those little round valves, which so far no one has invented a compostable version of (though there are some biodegradable zippers out there). For any and all of these bags, you'll need to make sure to cut off any non-biodegradable closure mechanisms or valves before you compost.
This new generation of bags are made of all kinds of post-consumer space age materials that are neither quite paper nor plastic, like the polyethylene and calcium carbonate TerraSkin bags used by Joe, or the polyethyleyne TekPak bags (with biozippers!) used by Wrecking Ball. And what about that slick lining in your bag? Glassine-lined bags are a good alternative to foil, and can be composted as well.
By and large, friendly bags are able to keep coffee pretty fresh in the shorter term: none of the beans we tasted had dramatically less freshness or more flavor drop-off than we'd expect. But over time, bags like these—which among other things are lighter weight and may let in more light—preserve coffee for a shorter period of time, and once a coffee's sat for a week or two you'll notice a quality loss more than a foil-lined bag you'd procrastinated opening for the same period of time. But if you're able to buy these bags fresh and locally, chances are the coffee will taste great.
On a more technical note is the matter of durability, which is another reason to seek local product. Many eco-friendly bags seem to suffer greatly in transit, like air freight, and literally burst at the seams. (Four Barrel is one roaster that offers their biofriendly bags locally, but ships mailorder coffee in sturdier bags.)
If you're not already diverting your coffee waste to organic disposal streams, remember how great coffee is for your (or your friends') gardens. It's rich in nutrients, can accelerate the breakdown of your pile, and can be perfect for attenuating the pH balance of your soil. Plus, your garden—friendly coffee bags and all—will smell more awesome.
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently compiling photographs of the best coffee in the world to be published by Presspop later this year.