Did you know that coffee is the world’s second most tradable commodity after oil? It’s the first drink most of us have when we start our day, whether it be at home, at your local shop on your way out, or in your office kitchen on your break. There are those who only have one cup every morning, and those who are complete addicts and need multiple caffeine injections throughout the day. No matter where you stop to enjoy it, or how many times a day you stop to enjoy it, there are many ways this popular drink can harm the planet, so let’s learn what we can do to get our caffeine fix guilt-free!
Before it gets to us
Coffee’s environmental impact starts before it even gets to us. A study written by Sarada Krishnan, the Director of Horticulture and Center for Global Initiatives, has found that by nature coffee plantations should be incredibly sustainable and beneficial to the planet, as their need for shade discourages deforestation of other tree species, indirectly encouraging biodiversity. Another important factor in coffee growth, which could potentially have a negative impact on our planet, is the fact that coffee plants require a lot of water. Fortunately, this same study has proved that this need is also naturally taken care of, by the heavy rains that are typical of the regions in which most coffee is produced. Unfortunately though, the increasing demand of coffee is starting to replace this naturally sustainable industry with intensive sun cultivations which involve the use of chemical fertilisers and unsustainable agricultural farming methods. This is proven by the fact that between 1996 and 2010 the share of the world's coffee farms that employ traditional shade-growing methods, plummeted from 43% to 24%. Also, the WWF has reported that 2.5 million acres of forest in Central America have been cleared to make way for coffee farming, with 37 of the 50 countries in the world with the highest deforestation rates being major coffee producers.
To add to this environmental impact on the plantations and surrounding areas, once the cherries have been picked from the trees and the seeds need to be extracted, electrical equipment and high-pressure washers (which consume a large quantity of water) will also be used.
After the coffee beans have been prepared, they are then transported to importers who will proceed to distribute them all over the world. According to a 2013 study that tracked the journey of a coffee bean from South America to Europe, every kilogram (2lb) of coffee beans shipped represented 4.82 kilograms (10lb) of carbon dioxide emissions. The emissions will obviously decrease when the beans are shipped closer, for example to the United States, or increase if they are shipped further away than Europe. To these transport emissions, we also have to add the impact of the packaging used when shipping these beans to one place to the other, but that is something that can’t easily be calculated, as it varies from the individual companies organizing the import/export.
It’s here, now what?
Once the beans have reached their final destination there are many roads they can take and many ways they can enter our lives. Whether you like the convenience of coffee pods, pads or capsules, the pleasure of drip coffee or the authenticity of using fresh ground coffee, there are various ways to enjoy coffee, both at home, or out and about. Machines that make fresh coffee with beans or ground coffee are the least impactful ways to get your coffee fix without harming the planet. Fully-automatic espresso machine and a traditional ‘auto-drip’ coffee maker for example, are the best way to get a great cup of coffee without using plastic or aluminum.
The most damaging coffee cups are those made using single-use pods. Standard coffee capsules are mostly made of aluminum or polypropylene, materials which preserve the freshness of the coffee and extend the products shelf life. Although both materials could technically be recycled, research shows that capsule coffee is vastly becoming an environmental crisis, as in 2018 alone, more than 15 billion single-use capsules were thrown away worldwide. If you can’t do without the convenience of using capsules, switch to reusable coffee pods that are refillable with your favorite ground coffee, or look into how to properly dispose of your capsules so they make their way to the correct recycling facility.
Each year 16 billion disposable coffee cups are thrown away all around the world. That amounts to a total of 6.5 million trees cut down, 4 billion gallons of water and enough energy to power 54,000 homes for a year! If your coffee routine involves heading to coffee shops and coffee chains, and getting coffee on-the-go multiple times a day, the smartest and most eco-friendly thing you could do is to always have a reusable cup with you!
The misinformation surrounding certain items and their recyclability is unfortunately causing great problems in regards to single-use coffee cups. A lot of people, thinking they are doing their bit to help the environment, place their used paper-based takeaway coffee cups with other disposable paper or cardboard items. This is wrong. These cups are lined with a membrane of polyethylene (plastic) to make them waterproof, meaning that they can’t be recycled. By throwing them in a recycling bin you may actually contaminate the entire collection and be responsible for previously recyclable items being send to landfill instead. To the pollution created by the cups, also add the use of the plastic lids the cups usually come with, and you can understand how wasteful this all is.
What can you do?
Like everything else: Do your research! Whether you buy your own coffee, or get your fix from your local shop, ask questions and trace the origin of the coffee beans. Commit to buying certified coffee brands that assure you the sustainability of the plantations and the fair treatment of all those involved (research fair trade labels for example). Secondly USE A REUSABLE CUP and take it with you wherever you go! Your individual decision to use a reusable cup instead of a disposable one might actually be the most environmentally intense decision of the whole coffee supply chain! One little change on your part = Massive impact to the planet.