Cleaning up coffee culture

© Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

We meet for it, offer it, pick it up and put on pots of it: whether you drink it or not, coffee culture is a real thing. A coffee-drinking consumer today has their choice of café (Internet to Cat [yes, the pet]), style (espresso, americano, cold brew, to name a few) and easy ways to obtain their brew of choice at home and on the go. Even those who prefer tea, hot chocolate or cider can agree that the market for hot beverages is one that offers convenience and quality, just the way they like it.

But as it is with many products that are fast and convenient, the trade-off is often a lack of sustainability along the supply chain. This can include diminished equity for producers and negative environmental impacts. Thus, the International Coffee Organization created International Coffee Day. Recognized on September 29 in the United States (the world’s second-largest importer of coffee beans), the event is a way to acknowledge that something as ubiquitous as coffee has varying degrees of sustainability. Being aware of these can help us make better choices.

Here are a few different methods of coffee preparations, their environmental impacts and ways you can clean them up:

Pods, K-cups and pouches

Coffee capsules have been “an environmental bogeyman” for quite some time now as the often cited statistic cites leading capsule brands producing enough pods to circle the Earth 10.5 times. Since these are unrecyclable curbside, this notion is not without (ahem) grounds, but the environmental costs of single-serving beverage machines must be considered from the entire lifecycle: beans to brewing.

The pods themselves are not recyclable due to components such as size, level of separation involved and organic matter. Although surprising, the machines themselves waste less than other methods. Single-serve machines generally use only as much coffee and water as is precisely necessary to brew a cup and shut down after each use, making them relatively energy efficient in contrast to traditional coffee machines, which can stay on all day unless manually turned off.

If convenience is what you’re craving, there is a solution for all brands of hot beverage capsules, including K-cups, pods, discs and their packaging, for the home, school or office with a Coffee Capsule Zero Waste Box. To eliminate waste altogether, consumers can also try out reusable filters for the single brew machine that can be refilled each morning with your favorite grind and rinsed out after each use.

Coffee shop

Fast-paced lifestyles and a certain promise of quality and variety make coffee shops, from the large chains to the independent corner café, a common source for the daily cup(s) o’ Joe. But take the amount of coffee a shop brews per day and divide it by drinks consumed and sold. That’s a lot of water and coffee, which requires energy to cultivate, process and transport, going to waste.

Add to that disposable coffee cups, lids, sleeves, stirring straws, napkins, sugar packets and food packaging, which contribute to post-consumer waste and require resources to produce. Then there’s the energy required to keep the lights on and power commercial coffee makers open to close, which is significant compared to a home coffee maker or office machine.

Consumers can pledge to bring their own reusable cups or dine in with their beverages, while coffee shop owners and managers can dedicate resources towards zero waste processes. Composting coffee grounds, replacing disposable tableware with reusable cups and spoons and offering incentives to customers who bring their own container are all ways to coffee service establishments can reduce their impact.

Automatic coffee machines

“People used to make a pot of coffee, now they make a cup,” is the lament of coffee roasters feeling the burn from single-serving machines, but the traditional drip coffee maker is alive and well. Brewing coffee by percolating hot water through a brew basket of coffee grounds is a still a common way people make their coffee.

There is some waste associated with extra coffee made, including filters and grounds discarded to landfill (although these can be composted) but the energy used to run a machine is what has the most impact on how wasteful a preparation method becomes. To cut down on this waste, consumers can purchase machines with auto power down functions. Perfecting your brew by using just enough coffee and water can reduce your impact, as well.

Best practices for all methods of coffee preparation entail being aware of the ways they create waste, and making small changes to reduce these impacts. Participate in programs that can recycle your capsules and other single-serve coffee brewing waste for minimized impact. Ask your favorite coffee shop to offer discounts with a refillable container. Choose traditional coffee makers with an auto shut down feature for the home or office to save energy.

Coffee consumption isn’t going anywhere, but changing the way we consume is the key to reducing waste and improving your favorite pick-me-up.

Cleaning up coffee culture
An item as ubiquitous as coffee has varying degrees of sustainability. Being aware of these can help us make better choices.

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