How to Make a Greener Cup of Coffee

Public Domain. Unsplash / René Porter

Reusable mugs aren't everything.

Most articles I've read about how to create a more sustainable coffee routine focus on the cup. "Get a reusable mug!" they all say, which is important, of course, but it's not the full story. (Even I've given this advice.) If you truly care about minimizing the impact of your favorite hot drink, then there is more to talk about.

First, buy beans with certifications. There are a zillion certifications out there, and it can feel confusing to navigate, but the ones I look for are fair-trade (certified by Fairtrade International), organic, shade-grown, and Rainforest Alliance. I don't usually find all of these on the same bag, but prioritize them in the order shown above.

The best scenario is when you buy your beans in a reusable container, such as a glass jar. Some artisanal coffee shops have bean dispensers and will tare a jar for you on the scale before you fill it. You could look into a subscription service like the one Lloyd uses, which delivers fair-trade coffee beans in glass jars by bicycle. Some coffee roasters will take back their bags for proper recycling.

Next, brew your own coffee, and don't make so much that you end up throwing half of it away. That's what I love about my French press and my moka pot; both make realistic quantities of great coffee that I can drink throughout the day. I'm also not opposed to reheating coffee in the microwave, although some connoisseurs might frown upon that practice.

An article in the Guardian suggests, rather provocatively, that capsule pods are less wasteful than they're made out to be. Natalie Parletta wrote,

"It’s to do with mathematics – one pod gives a precise measure and the water is flash-heated, while other brewing methods tend to use and waste more coffee beans per cup, generating more energy to heat it, land and water to grow the beans, carbon dioxide emitted during their transport and methane produced by coffee grinds that end up in landfill."

While that might be accurate, the issue of non-recyclable waste remains a huge problem, not to mention the inflated cost per serving. Plus, there are certainly many other single-cup-sized coffee systems, from small French presses and moka pots to fancy espresso machines. I am quite content to stick with my own zero-waste system that produces nothing other than compostable coffee grounds.

Another step is to rethink your use of dairy. This can be a tough adjustment for many people, but dairy's carbon footprint often gets overlooked in the debate over top-quality beans. As Mark Bittman wrote in VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 PM,

"If lattes are your thing, try substituting unsweetened soy, oat, rice, or nut milk, since the amount of dairy that goes into even an average-size coffee drink is substantial."

You could switch to drip coffee and use a splash of half-and-half to get the same creamy taste (which is what I do now with my French press, having given up lattes). Or check out this list of '8 ways to spice up your morning coffee or tea,' which includes several non-dairy ideas.

In general, it's important to recognize how special this drink is, and to treat it with respect. I loved this comment on a sustainable coffee post by zero-waste blogger Lindsay Miles:

"We all need to be a little more mindful of how we approach our coffee routines – perhaps a little less speed (those depressing little capsules...) and more time spent brewing a cup of coffee will make us appreciate just what an incredible journey those coffee beans have had – from their home of origin to our homes."