Picture of a coffee bag

Your Coffee Bag CAN’T Be Recycled—Thanks to the Good Job of VMPET.

If you buy ground coffee or any food that comes in a sealed bag with a metallic appearance on the inside—Do not discard it so easily. It’s made to protect food in a very effective way. So you can probably reuse it because recycling it is hard. Let me explain.

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Layers that conform a VMPET film.

VMPET is probably the material used for the package of those products. It is a light, cost-effective composite material, safe for food packaging. The problem is, it’s very hard to recycle.

Vacuum Metallized PET is made by depositing a layer of vaporized aluminum on the surface of a PET film. This is made in a vacuum. This process is fast and cheap. The result is a composite material that can be mixed with other films like vinyl, or Kraft paper, together, they serve as a raw material for making food packaging (among other applications).

Graphic on metallization craftsmanship
How VMPET is made. Source: vp-packaging.com.

VMPET is used for coffee and other foods because it has a low Oxygen Transmission Rate, which means, the combined layers of materials are tick enough to impede the pass of oxygen molecules (O2) into the food conserved inside the bag or package. Also, the aluminum layer blocks sunlight, which is good for some foods like coffee. And finally, this material can be printed, so brands and producers find it useful for their marketing efforts.

VMPET is particularly effective for food packaging because it allows companies to sell products in foreign markets or prolong the life of the product. This material is durable enough, it can resist impacts, it’s hard to tear, and it can be processed to add features like degassing valves or re-sealable zippers.

O2 is a very small molecule that can pass through many plastic layers, and is easier to pass through Kraft paper. But when the vaporized aluminum is added to the PET film, the Oxygen Transmission Rate falls dramatically (compared to Kraft paper).

Since oxygen is responsible for many chemical reactions, protecting the food from it is critical. Another reason PET is used is to avoid air moisture, which enables the reproduction of bacteria.

For a product like coffee, light is another enemy. But VMPET is perfect for blocking it. Some coffee packages use Kraft + PET, but it lets the light pass through, so adding a VMPET to kraft elevates the protection layer. 

And perhaps, time is the biggest enemy of the quality of the product. All foods naturally decay. Even more those so-called “organic.” So, a package made with PET or VMPET is strong enough and resistant enough to other treatments that may prolong the life of the food, like extracting the air out of the package.

The problem is, these packages have a single-use purpose. Even the ones that use a Ziploc style sealing mechanism, are rarely used after the food is consumed. And then, the next problem is that these materials can’t degrade in the soil, and if they do, the microplastics are a concern for animals and plants or water contamination.

Recycling plastic is very hard. In theory, PET can be recycled, but it depends on the use it had. You have to clean this plastic to make it recyclable. You have to cut it into smaller pieces. You can’t mix PET with PP or vinyl, so a proper separation of the materials has to be made. All of this means work, water, energy… So recycling is still a hard task that doesn’t ensure that the environment gets healthier.

The other important material is aluminum, which is hard to produce, but it is easier to recycle and use for new applications than extracting it from the Earth’s crust (aluminum isn’t in a pure state in nature, it has to be separated from other minerals).

One hundred seventy-two million of 60kg coffee bags were produced in 2018 – 2019. 172 million! (Data from Statista). A good amount of this coffee was packaged in VMPET bags. And many more products are being packaged using this material. So there is an actual need for the proper treatment of this material after the product has been used.

This material is harder to recycle because it’s a composite. High-quality versions use three or more layers of materials to protect the product to conserve. The painting used for branding is another topic to consider. But in full, the whole bag becomes a product hard to recycle. The only way to destroy it fast is by burning it. Recycling VMPET means you have to separate the layers, and I don’t know any method that can do this in a sustainable, or even practical way (if you know how to, please leave a comment below).

You can wash or clean the inside of the bag and reuse it. As I said before, it can conserve your food for a longer time due to the material properties.

VMPET can be used in other applications – the material tolerates fire for a short period of time, but longer than paper fibers.

Testing a sample of VMPET with fire.

I sincerely haven’t found out other applications of the VMPET used bags or for the VMPET used film of the bags. But I’m sure one way to avoid the final problem of managing the waste of these bags is by not buying single-use products. And yes this includes coffee bags, this includes your pet’s food and many other products that you only use once. In some sense, buying in bigger amounts is better.

Nevertheless, the technology of this material is quite impressive, and I guess there may be more applications that make this film a formidable choice. My concern is we are not aware enough of how this material could be used and how we must have to treat it properly after consuming the product it’s being designed to protect.

Please share this post if you find it useful. If you know how to recycle this material, or if you found an error in this text, please leave a comment below.

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