May 27, 2019

How to Reduce The Environmental Impact of Your Coffee Habit


How many times a week do you pick up a coffee to go? Do you always use a disposable cup? And what method do you use to brew coffee at home?

The coffee industry has environmental impacts throughout the supply chain, but you can make a difference with some small changes at the consumer level. Read on to find out what you can do to reduce your impact.

Lee este artículo en español Cómo Reducir el Impacto Ambiental de Tu Hábito Cafetero

Disposable coffee cups. Credit: Ann H

An Environmental Crisis

There’s no question that we’re in an environmental crisis. Global heating, reduced biodiversity, and climate instability are all direct results of human behavior.

The coffee industry is undoubtedly a part of this. The environmental impact of agriculture varies based on specific practices used, but  the move away from shade-grown coffee to more intensive styles of farming means that overall, coffee farming is making a bigger environmental impact today than it did in the past. And coffee producers are likely to be hit hard by climate instability. As temperatures increase, the amount of arable land will decline and pests and diseases are likely to thrive in wider areas. Unpredictable weather patterns will impact coffee ripening and cause real issues for coffee quality.

It may seem overwhelming to consider the whole supply chain, so let’s look at what each of us can do at the consumer level. Making some informed choices can reduce energy usage, waste volume, and overall carbon footprint.

Learn more in Sustainability in Coffee: What Are The Main Issues?

Making a pour over. Credit: Julien Labelle

How to Reduce Energy Usage

How do you make coffee at home or at the office? For some, an SCA-approved batch brewer is an easy way to get a consistently good cup of coffee. But keep in mind that electric coffee makers consume a lot of electricity. Consider switching to the classic French press, the iconic AeroPress, or a pour over method instead.

If you love espressos, try a lever-driven manual machine over an automatic one. Yes, you still need to heat your water for any of these methods, but the energy consumption of a kettle is much lower.

You could also consider switching to cold brew. This brewing method has a reputation for being sweet, mellow, and lacking in acidity, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. There are numerous techniques and you can produce very different results by using different beans.

Learn more in Brewing Methods Compared: How Should You Make Coffee at Home?

Cold brew in a Honduran coffee shop. Credit: Cafe San Rafael

How to Reduce Waste

An Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) report indicates that “2.5 billion coffee cups are used and thrown away each year in the UK […] but less than 1 in 400 – just 0.25% – are recycled.” Alarming, isn’t it? And this is just one part of the waste associated with enjoying a cup of coffee.

  • The Problem With Disposable Cups

Why are disposable cups an issue? Can’t we just recycle them? Recycling disposable cups isn’t impossible, but it’s expensive and there aren’t enough appropriate facilities around the world.

The problem is that the paper cups have an inner lining made of polyethylene. This makes them waterproof but also makes them difficult to separate. So, most cups end up in landfills or incinerators. Remember that it’s better to reduce usage and reuse products than recycle them. This avoid using resources to create the item in the first place and then even more to recycle it.

A disposable coffee cup and stir stick. Credit: Stas Knop

So, what can you do if you want a coffee on the go? Look for coffee shops that use compostable options such as Vegware’s disposable products made of plant-based materials. But remember that although these alternatives are more environmentally friendly, they still need to be disposed of properly. Throwing them into the wrong bin defeats their purpose.

The best option may be to use a reusable cup, whether that’s a purpose-made travel mug or a repurposed cup from home. There are many eco-friendly cups on the market, but choose products that are durable and that can be recycled once they reach the end of use. And then use it! Unless a reusable cup is used enough times to offset the materials used in its production, it isn’t an environmental choice.

There are also programs, such as Viva laCup, YORCUP, and CupCycling, that enable you to take reusable cups from participating coffee shops and return them later. The UK government rejected a proposal to introduce a 25p “latte levy” on single-use cups in 2017, but some cafés there and elsewhere offer a discount if you bring your own cup.

Coffee capsules. Credit: Jisu Han

  • Single-Serve Capsules

Coffee capsules are convenient and there are now many companies offering pods with specialty quality coffee. But they can produce a lot more waste than traditional brewing methods due to the packaging. The containers are usually made of plastic, aluminum, or a combination of the two. After preparing your coffee, you should thoroughly clean each capsule and take it to a dedicated recycling facility. But how realistic is that for you?

If you’re reluctant to give up your capsules, try switching to a more sustainable version. For example, Gourmesso offers compostable pods that are certified by Rainforest Alliance and compatible with various single-serve machines. Cometeer’s specialty grade frozen capsules have less waste volume and won Best New Product at the 2019 Specialty Coffee Expo.

Paper coffee filters for Aeropress. Credit: Gisselle Guerra

  • Coffee Filters

A key part of the pour over method is using a filter to trap solids. But filters can be environmentally problematic.

Many people use paper filters, which they then discard after use. As well as creating waste volume, many paper filters are bleached with chlorine or oxygen. Oxygen is more environmentally friendly than chlorine, but it’s still a chemical process with waste products. So, consider using unbleached filters or switching to a reusable one.

CoffeeSock’s cotton filter with used coffee grounds. Credit: CoffeeSock

But should you use a plastic, metal, or cloth filter? Plastic is usually made from non-renewable resources and can take hundreds of years to biodegrade. Additionally, studies have shown that eco-friendly alternatives to petroleum-based plastics are biodegradable only in specific environmental conditions.

So, look for a metal or cloth filter. You may also want to consider a pour over device that is designed to trap the solids without a filter, such as the the ceramic ones available from Loca and 224porcelain.

Learn more in Coffee Sock: Old-School Filters That Save the Planet

A Loca ceramic coffee cone, which works without a paper filter. Credit: Neil Soque

  • What to Do With Spent Coffee Grounds

Every cup of coffee will leave you with grounds, which most of us throw in the landfill. But they can be used in other ways. One of the most popular reuses is as fertilizer. If you’re more adventurous, you could also use them to grow mushrooms.

Bio-Bean and Coffee Recycling Co. are two examples of organizations that collect coffee grounds from places with high usage and take them to dedicated facilities for reuse. There are examples of reusing coffee grounds to dye fabric, create alternative fuels and compounds, and to add insulating properties to construction materials. Look into whether there are any projects handling coffee waste in your area.

Learn more in Sustainable Coffee: How to Reuse Your Coffee Grounds

A coffee cup by Weducer made with used coffee grounds. Credit: Gisselle Guerra

Which Coffee Should You Buy?

There are a number of sustainability certifications for coffee, including Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade. Some of these are more focused on environmental sustainability than others. Unfortunately, there’s no right answer about which one is best. Look into the differences and decide whether you support the aims and methods of the program.

You could also talk to your barista or local roaster, who may be able to tell you more about the beans they sell and why they choose to buy from specific producers.

The coffee chain can be complicated and it’s not always clear where your beans come from or how they were farmed, but try to find out as much as you can and choose suppliers who consider sustainability.

Find out more in How to Understand The Label on Your Bag of Roasted Coffee

A cup of coffee. Credit: Gordon Plant

Dairy’s Carbon Footprint

Meat and dairy consumption has a significant effect on greenhouse gas emissions. So why not take your coffee black? Replace the sweetness of a flat white through honey processed beans or with a mellow cold brew. The joy of specialty coffee is experimenting with different beans and brewing methods to enhance the qualities that you find delicious.   

If you really need the milk, you could consider switching to plant-based alternatives. There are many different options available and each varies in terms of taste, mouthfeel, and nutritional properties. Their carbon footprints also vary. Try a few different options and see which pairs best with coffee for you.

Learn more in Which Is The Best Non-Dairy Milk For Specialty Coffee?

A cup and pour over brewer at Espresso Lab Roastery in Germany. Credit: Gisselle Guerra

The environmental crisis can seen overwhelming, but by knowing the pros and cons of your choices, you can make informed decisions and choose environmentally friendly options.

Whenever you can, sit down and enjoy your coffee from a ceramic or glass cup, whether that’s at home or in an environmentally conscious café with ethically sourced products. Rethink your brewing method and whether you really need to add milk.

You can also encourage your favorite coffee shop to implement some sustainable practices and share your information with family and friends. Only together can we address the environmental crisis.

Enjoyed this? You may also like How Madagascan Deforestation Puts World Coffee At Risk

Feature photo: A disposable coffee cup with a paper sleeve. Feature photo credit: Ross Varrette

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