Coffee and sustainability, creating a sustainable cup

Grown in 80 countries, employing 125 million workers, and consumed (in cups) 2.25 billion times per day. Coffee is a big business and sustainability, at all stages in a bean’s lifetime — from growing and processing to transport, brew, and waste disposal — is an increasing problem. To be sustainable, eco-conscious values must be present and exercised at each step of a bean’s life cycle. In this entry, we discuss areas that define a bean’s sustainability, pre- and post-brew.

On the farm

Perspective: (a) Wet processing wastewater is 30 to 40 times more polluted than urban sewage. (b) 60% of wild coffee species are at risk of extinction as a result of deforestation, human intervention, and climate change.

Sustainability issues

Climate change. Resource exploitation. Industrial farming. While the potential for environmental depletion and degradation is near endless, the two greatest threats facing sustainable coffee cultivation are industrial farming and resource exploitation. Both become more challenging with global warming and both produce side effects that contribute to global warming. To understand how growing conditions relate to bean sustainability, we need to discuss the difference between arabica and robusta coffees.

At the most basic level, arabica coffee is shade-grown, non-disruptive, and resource-light while robusta is sun-grown, environmentally disruptive, and resource-heavy. In their native state, coffee trees, which are carbon-sequestering evergreen shrubs, grow at high altitudes beneath a canopy of large trees in an old-growth forest. Arabica trees grown wild or on small plots play a key role in their local agroforestry system by providing a commercial need for the preservation of ancient trees and by supporting biodiversity in the local ecosystem. This pristine growing environment also provides natural biological control agents, aids soil stabilization, enhances coffee pollinators, and ensures that minimal or no additional resources are needed to nurture the tree to maturation. At the other end of the spectrum is sun-grown robust coffee. Preparing fields for robusta often requires clearing large areas of land while robusta bean growth demands significant pesticides and water.

Once mature and picked, a bean must be processed, the acts of cleaning and drying a bean in preparation for roasting. There are three primary processing options: dry processing, wet processing, and honey processing. Dry processing and honey processing only require a flat, dry platform and sun. Wet processing, also known as washing, requires significant water that often cannot be reused — and by significant, we mean mind-blowing. According to the SCA, wet processing one ton of green coffee requires 10,000 m³ or 22,046,226 pounds of water. Once used for processing, this wastewater, which is 30 to 40 times more polluted than urban sewage, must be discharged. If treated properly post-processing the water can safely be returned to the earth. If discharged improperly the dirty water is likely to end up contaminating local water sources. To learn more about processing, click here.

This brings us to the final processing step — repurposing waste. Coffee generates substantial natural waste in the form of coffee cherry meat, cherry skin, and husks. All of these elements can be composted and the meat and skins can be used to create tea and energy.

What to look for to ensure you buy sustainable coffee

If you are troubled by the idea of striped forests, polluted water, and mass piles of organic waste (👏 👏 ), look for coffees with the following words or certifications: Certified Organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, Smithsonian Certified, Common Code for the Coffee Community (4C), Eco-OK, Bird Friendly, Sustainable, Shade Grown High Grown (SGHG), or Naturally grown. To receive any of the above certifications or distinctions, a farm must adhere to the classification’s sustainability criteria. If you prefer to play it extra eco-safe, also look for coffee that has been dry or honey-processed. If the processing method is not visible on the bag, contact the roaster, they will be able to provide you with the information.

Beans on the move

Perspective: A 2014 study found that roasting accounts for 15% of a bean’s total carbon footprint while transportation, on average, accounts for 50% of a bean’s carbon footprint.

Sustainability issues

How far has your bean traveled? While we generally don’t think of coffee beans as jet setters, these little bits of soon-to-be liquid magic make quite a physical journey from tree to cup. At a minimum, they must travel by vehicle from the processing facility to the point of export, then to the point of import, and from there either directly to the roaster or to a holding warehouse before moving on to the roaster. For roasters with multiple retail sites and only one roaster, those beans often travel from the roaster back to a warehouse before going to their final retail destination. Coffee transportation is a big deal, comprising a whopping 50% of a bean’s carbon footprint. Supporting local businesses or purchasing coffee directly from the roaster are great ways to reduce that footprint — but only if you know where the bean has been beforehand. If your favorite local café roasts in their café but stores their green beans 2,000 miles away, those sustainably certified beans may not be as sustainable as you are led to believe.

On the roasting* end, aside from the energy needed to fire and work the roaster, there are two areas of potential environmental impact — emissions (primarily smoke, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide) and chaff (the husk of the bean burned off during roasting), both of which are generated while roasting. Emissions are easily removed before hitting the air with afterburners, thermal oxidizers, and filtration systems. Chaff is a nutrient-rich particulate matter that gathers in the bottom of the roaster and makes an excellent addition to compost.

What you can do to help the environment

Ask questions! Find out where your coffee was roasted and if the roaster uses an afterburner or emissions filtration system. You could also ask what is done with the chaff. If no one is able or willing to answer these questions, it may be time to find a new favorite coffee.

*At Mills Coffee and Queen Bean Coffee Company, we use an afterburner to removes emissions and smoke and rely on our solar panels for approximately 80% of our energy. We donate all chaff to local landscapers and either donate or create retail items (such as tote bags) from used burlap coffee sacks.

From a freshly brewed cup to the landfill

Perspective: Globally, 500 billion disposable cups are discarded each year; in the UK alone, people use 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups each year.

Sustainability issues

Cups, capsules, and spent grounds are at the heart of coffee consumer sustainability responsibility. Hundreds of millions of disposable coffee cups and non-biodegradable single-use coffee capsules are used each day before heading to a landfill. While a paper cup or plastic pod may look recyclable, most contain small amounts of non-recyclable plastics or aluminum. Used coffee grounds, which are packed with nutrients and easily compostable, tend to share a similar fate to cups and capsules. While easily compostable, most used coffee grounds head to the landfill.

What you can do to reduce the waste

Opt for a reusable or recyclable cup or capsule. If you frequent a café that offers reusable cups and you don’t mind bringing your own cup, do so! If you prefer not to lug around a used cup (which is understandable), look for a café that uses cups made from recycled materials. If you are a single cup machine devotee, opt for a biodegradable, filter-packed pod or reusable capsule cup, such as a reusable K-cup*. Reusable capsule cups may take a minute to clean but they are healthier for the environment and expand your coffee options to every coffee that comes in whole bean or ground form. As for those spent grounds, repurpose them! Used coffee grounds are wonderful in compost piles, as odor absorbers, in pincushions, and as mushroom soil. If you are a true coffee fanatic, you can also support sustainable practices by asking your local café for and repurposing their used grounds, or by supporting companies that create products from spent grounds, including Kaffee Form and S.Café. For more ideas on how to repurpose your used coffee grounds, click here.

If you are interested in learning more about coffee and the environment, follow our blog — from extinction to carcinogens to eco-certifications, we will be discussing the interplay between coffee and the environment in a series of blogs over the next few weeks. To read more about the topics covered in this entry, please visit the reference articles below.

*If you are a TheQueenBean customer and would like a reusable K-cup, please ask for one during your next purchase. We will gladly include a free reusable cup.


More Than Cups: Considering Sustainability in the Coffee Shop Industry

The British Coffee Association

Coffee Quality and Sustainability: The Issues Challenging and Changing Our World

Sustainability in Coffee: What Are The Main Issues?

Sustainable coffee: How to find a cup that doesn’t cost the Earth

Sustainable Coffee Production

Making the coffee industry sustainable

International Coffee Organization

K-cups and coffee capsules: Is your quick java fix killing the environment?

Disposable coffee cups: How big a problem are they for the environment?

Earth Day fact sheet 2018

Statistics & Facts on the Single-serve Coffee Market

The Use of Water in Processing

Coffee crisis? 60% of wild species could go extinct, some within decades

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