Coffee Is an Example of How Personal Choice Matters

A comparison of two ways of having coffee delivered to your home.

A cup of coffee

Mikhail Kolomiets/ Getty Images

It is a regular topic of discussion on Treehugger: Do personal actions matter? Or is it all about societal change and the fault of big corporations? In fact both matter, but you can't ignore personal choice. I recently wrote a book about it, which Passive House expert Monte Paulson ruined by summarizing it all in one tweet:

A major theme of the book is that you can make lifestyle choices that are enjoyable and less expensive with a far lower carbon footprint. Take coffee: You can make simple and thoughtful choices that can make a huge difference and still have a nice cup of the stuff.

For example, we learn from The Boston Globe about Cometeer, described as a coffee tech startup that has venture capitalists caffeinated to the point where they have invested $100 million.

According to The Globe, Cometeer brews very strong concentrated coffee: "After it is brewed, the company flash freezes the coffee immediately and stores it in oxygen-free, recyclable, and aluminum-made capsules. Those capsules are then dumped into liquid nitrogen to freeze the coffee compounds." It then packs it in dry ice and ship it to customers.

Cometeer sustainability


Cometeer claims that its coffee is "sustainable." It says:

"We created the world’s first fully curbside-recyclable aluminum capsule and didn’t stop there — all of our packaging and shipping materials are 100% recyclable. And, because we deal with the grounds on our end — by composting them — the capsules are easy to just drop in the recycling when you’re done with them."

Except we know that "recyclable" is a meaningless term and that we still have to reduce the amount of aluminum we use to reduce the amount of virgin aluminum required.

It also does not mention the energy required to make all that liquid nitrogen through the cryogenic distillation of compressed air, or the energy to make dry ice—one source suggested 955 kilojoules per kilogram. It is going to need quick and expensive shipping to get it to you before the dry ice has melted, and there is a carbon cost to that. It all adds up; This coffee is expensive at about $2 per cup. Much of that is up in the air as carbon dioxide emissions from all that cooling and shipping. But that aluminum container is recyclable!

It doesn't have to be this way

Coffeecology coffee.

Lloyd Alter

There are other ways to get good coffee delivered to your home. I get mine from Coffeecology in Hamilton, Ontario: Pre-pandemic it came in mason jars after paying a buck deposit; they switched to paper to minimize touching but I expect will return to glass soon. I don't think founder Roger Abbiss raised $100 million from venture capitalists; he already had a coffee shop. I get my choice of organic, Fair Trade, bird-friendly, even Cafe Fem, "supporting women coffee growers." It is roasted every week and delivered within days.

Laurie Featherstone on bike
Laurie Featherstone on bike.

Lloyd Alter

It is driven to Toronto in a Prius and then delivered by electric cargo bike to my door, although no longer by former rower Laurie Featherstone. It is also expensive coffee, but half of what the Cometeer costs, and I am willing to pay a bit more to get the greenest coffee I can. And there are no "recyclable" capsules—it is reusable glass.

It's all about personal choice

Me trying to deconstruct and recycle a coffee pod
Me trying to deconstruct and recycle a coffee pod.

Lloyd Alter

Cometeer is an extreme example, but the same story could be told about Kuerig and Nespresso, where they sell pods and twist themselves into knots to pretend they are "sustainable." And it brings us full circle back to Monte Paulsen's tweet and my book: We all can make choices that have a far lower carbon footprint. My coffee choice is convenient—the jar or bag is on my front porch. I am supporting a small business that is supporting small growers and bicycle delivery services.

Cometeer raises 100 million bucks for what seems to me to be the dumbest idea since Juicero, even if we weren't in the middle of a climate crisis.

It's because of that crisis that we have to consider our choices about everything. It doesn't mean we have to suffer: I am still getting a great cup of coffee. It just means we have to be thoughtful. Those choices can make a big difference, and as Monte noted, our lives can still be enjoyable and less expensive.