Is a cafetiére a better tool for sustainable coffee drinking?


In the age of sustainability, it’s important that we question every detail of our processes and be willing and open-minded enough to adjust them. As part of that ideology, I’ve seen organisations and environmental consultancies around the globe embrace Life Cycle Assessments in order to make sure that their large-scale systems are optimised, but what does it actually mean for you and me? Well, one interpretation is that it means asking what toilet paper we should buy, which reusable bag material is the least harmful, and what is the most efficient way to make a cup of coffee.

It’s the same reason I’ve explored these questions:

In this article, I’m looking at the humble cafetiére, also known commonly as a French Press, as I ask ‘Is a cafetiére a better tool for sustainable coffee drinking?’.

Firstly, what is a cafetiére?

Depending on your preferred level of sophistication and lingo of choice, the cafetiére or French Press is a cylindrical pot with a flat filter, commonly used to make coffee (or loose lead). It has a lid to keep the heat inside and there is a long handle going vertically through this lid. Hot water is added to the grounds, and the handle, which is also the filter, is pushed down, separating coffee grounds from hot coffee. Once this is done, it can be poured and enjoyed.

A cafetiére is typically made from either stainless steel, glass, or plastic.

Who would use a cafetiére?

Anyone can use a cafetiére, but typically it takes someone who is quite interested in coffee and coffee-making to go to the trouble of buying one and using it. With a cafetiére, coffee is brewed more in the style of infusing tea, which means that coffee needs to be ground more finely in order to resemble tea leaves (in fact, you can use your cafetiére to brew loose leaf tea as well).

Coffee purists believe that a cafetiére is the best way of extracting the rich and supple flavours of coffee, taking a slower and gentler approach than the convenience of instant powder or the force required to make an espresso.

Usefully, cafetiéres are typically marked by how many cups of coffee they will make, which is a good indicator of how many people will drink it. A single person might only need a small one, whereas a boardroom meeting could require a large one, at least.

Are cafetiéres a sustainable option?

With any question of sustainability, there are numerous variables to be considered. Here are a few things we think are important to mention

  • Coffee grounds are wasted in the process, the same as using an espresso machine. Note that instant coffee doesn’t generate coffee ground waste at the consumer phase
  • It’s possible to use too much coffee, generating wastage accidentally, whereas coffee capsules use the correct amount of coffee
  • Cafetiéres use less energy per cup than a coffee machine, which is a sustainable advantage. Even capsule machines must often be kept plugged in and turned on to guarantee a minimum temperature for the water
  • Some cafetiéres require a paper filter to keep the coffee grounds from getting mixed in with the hot coffee liquid, however, you will typically find cafetiéres with a strong built-in filter system. Buying the latter is better for the environment
  • One of the key factors of comparing coffee for their sustainable attributes is looking at how the water is heated and whether it stays hot. A metal cafetiére performs 35% better as a thermal insulator than its glass equivalent!

Is coffee consumption particularly bad for the environment?

The environmental impacts and carbon emissions associated with coffee at a consumer-level depend almost entirely on the method of production and the way that the coffee is housed (ceramics, reusable, metal, or disposable, to name but a few examples). 

Research from Germany proved that this is correct, finding that cultivation and agriculture, which we discussed in this previous article, are worth 55% of the life cycle emissions. The consumer-level phase of coffee makes up around 30% of the overall emissions, although this does not take into account the physical running of cafés, but rather the power consumption of coffee making technologies, the role of water, and the packagings used. The remaining 15% can be attributed to things like transportation and cleaning. 

The same research found that the French Press was the top-performing method of production, with the filter drip machine second, closely followed by the less-popular ‘filter pad’ machine. At the other end of the scale, carbon emissions, energy consumption, and overall environmental performance were at their lowest for the capsule machine and a fully automatic coffee machine. Power consumption played a large role in these findings because of sleep and standby modes. Capsule machines scored poorly because of the aluminium and plastic waste generated - with Halo’s home-compostable capsules negating this factor, the performance would dramatically improve.

You can read the Germany study here.

‘Should I go out and buy a cafetiére right now?’

It’s not my job to tell you how to drink your coffee. In a sense, I’m just playing devil’s advocate, looking at all of the considerations surrounding coffee and helping you arrive at a place where you can make a more sustainable decision. 

Energy is getting greener and cleaner, which means that power consumption begins to take on a more positive light, especially if it is truly sourced or generated in a clean way. If you have your own solar panels, you’re on the right track. So, if we remove energy from the factor and look at the wastage of coffee and packaging, I think that correctly-sized cafetiéres and capsule machines (using a sustainable capsule such as Halo’s) are an effective choice.

Making too much coffee is a big cause of wastage and that’s why I’m not a fan of drip coffee. I’m also not in love with the idea of keeping a capsule machine running 24/7 if you’re a 1 or 2 cup a day kind of person who is using aluminium capsules (which I hope you either aren’t, or won’t be for long). Filling the kettle to the top with water to boil and then only making one cup of instant coffee is an environmental fail too, even if instant coffee wins on most counts for sustainability.

Truly, there are pros and cons to each method, and it’s enough to make you a bit frustrated and jittery (much like not getting your coffee fix). For you to answer the question ‘Is a cafetiére a better tool for sustainable coffee drinking?’ yourself, you have to ask yourself these things:

  1. How will I heat the water?
  2. What packaging waste is generated?
  3. What coffee ground waste is generated (and what can I do with it)?
  4. Will I make excess coffee?
  5. What will I put my coffee in?

Halo’s concern and commitment to sustainability

Halo have gone a long way towards solving the coffee sustainability question. By making home-compostable capsules, of which both the packaging and the coffee grounds can be turned into compost, there is no longer the question of packaging waste or coffee ground waste. Capsule machines may consume energy, but that energy consumed is comparable to a drip coffee machine, is less than a full-powered coffee machine, and is slightly more than an electric kettle. Innovations such as Halo’s capsule are paving the way for a future with 100% sustainable, harmless coffee.