Your Iced Coffee Habit Is Terrible for the Planet

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Sorry to be such a buzz kill, but we need to talk about this.

The first time I ever tried iced coffee, I thought it was amazing -- for about five minutes. It was 2009 and my boyfriend (now husband) handed me a plastic Starbucks cup on a hot Saturday morning in downtown Toronto. I remember how the first sip tasted -- strong, frigid, sugary -- but then, the further I got into it, the less I liked it. The ice started to melt, watering down the coffee. Condensation formed on the outside of the cup, getting my hand wet. It started to taste sickeningly sweet. My initial reaction of "Wow!" turned to "This is so overrated" by the end, and I haven't had much iced coffee since.

It turns out, without even realizing it I took the environmental moral highroad by giving iced coffee the cold shoulder. According to Arwa Mahdawi, writing for The Guardian, iced coffee is ruining the planet for a number of reasons.

1) The straw: I don't know why, but straws have become mandatory with iced coffee. Starbucks hands out an estimated 2 billion of its iconic green straws annually -- and that's only Starbucks! Countless other coffee shops do the same.

Solution: Buy your own glass or metal drinking straw and carry it in your bag. Stir it with a spoon. Or -- here's a novel idea -- use your lips to transfer that liquid into your body.

2) The cup: Oh, the horrid plastic cup! Why do we do this? Americans throw away 25 billion coffee cups a year, many of which end up in the ocean, where they kill marine life. There is no rule saying iced beverages must be consumed from plastic; why not paper, ceramic, metal?

Solution: Ask for your iced coffee in a regular mug and drink it at the coffee shop. Bring your own insulated mug (it will stay colder) or a mason jar.

3) The sugar syrup: Iced coffee usually comes loaded with sugary flavor, presumably to make it more palatable, but we don't need more sugar in our diets. Mahdawi writes, "A grande mocha Frappuccino at Starbucks has 61 grams of sugar, more than your recommended daily allowance."

Solution: It's pretty simple. Start drinking your iced coffee black.

4) The dairy: Some of the fancy iced coffee drinks seem to have more milk and cream (or non-dairy substitutes) in them than coffee; but for those of us who think about nitpicky details, it's hard to find a milk that doesn't come with a host of ethical issues. The milk industry is fraught with cruelties and inhumane practices; the soy industry is responsible for significant deforestation, particularly in the Amazon; and "929 litres of water is needed to make just one litre of almond milk".

Solution: Use pea milk, an alternative dairy-like substance that Mahdawi says is "more sustainable than most nut milks," or oat milk, which apparently is the latest darling in the vegan coffee barista world. I might sneak in my own fair-trade organic coconut milk, or just drink your coffee black.

5) The caffeine: Residual caffeine leaves our bodies via urine and enters the natural environment, where researchers are only just starting to understand its effects. One study says that even a small amount of dissolved caffeine can concentrate over time, increasing bacterial growth and dramatically increasing ammonia concentrations, which is toxic to fish.

Solution: Choose decaf. Drink less. Skip the coffee altogether.

If you really can't give up the thought of iced coffee this summer, the best compromise is probably to make your own -- much as you would make your own hot coffee if you were serious about reducing waste, saving money, and enjoying a high quality product. My husband has experimented with cold-brew coffee made in a French press, and it's great stuff. You can find detailed directions here, but basically you steep the (fair-trade organic) grounds in room-temperature water for at least 12 hours and serve in a glass with a big ice cube. So far I haven't found anything wrong with that!