If you take environmental issues as seriously as you do your coffee then you’re our kind of coffee drinker. If you haven’t thought about it before, then pour yourself a cup of your favourite roast and have a read.
At Halo we designed sustainable coffee capsules to try and combat the vast amount of waste produced by the capsule industry. (See our blog post here about the effect of plastic coffee pods on the environment) Nearly a third of all UK households now own a coffee pod machine, but are compostable capsules more sustainable than ground coffee?
About one half of coffee’s environmental footprint occurs at the producer level (i.e., during cultivation, treatment, processing and packaging for distribution.) The key environmental factors to be assessed and measured are energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and water usage.
Traditionally coffee was grown under a canopy of trees, providing a habitat for wildlife and preventing topsoil erosion. Current world coffee exports amount to 10.15 million bags in November 2020, that’s up over half a million compared to November 2019. This incredible demand has resulted in sun-grown coffee taking precedence over shaded farms. Direct sunlight causes the coffee to grow faster, allowing two harvests a year and higher yields. This growing method sees rainforest destroyed to make way for high density, open plantations over huge areas of land. Unfortunately, this system also destroys soil health and requires ever greater fertilisers to maintain yields. Eventually, this soil will no longer be suitable for coffee growing and the coffee farmer will move on – very possibly to virgin land.
Does bean type matter?
When growing methods changed so did the tree. Farmers switched from the more flavorful, less acidic arabica to robusta, which can grow in almost full-sun conditions. While arabica is more likely to be grown in the shade than robusta, much of the world's arabica is still grown in direct sun, or on partially shaded farms where the environmental benefits are lower compared to fully-shaded farms. Partially shaded farms see the coffee fields broken here and there by a tall tree to provide shade, but unfortunately, the vegetative cover is minimal and provides little benefit to the ecosystem. In twelve months, exports of Arabica totalled 79.81 million bags in November 2020, whereas Robusta exports amounted to 48.66 million bags.
Check your sources
To be an environmentally conscious coffee-drinker therefore, the best place to start is by determining where your coffee has been sourced. Specialty coffee or single origin allows for better traceability where quality processing techniques are often found alongside highly skilled, motivated coffee farmers (see our post here on single-origin.) For sustainable farming make sure your coffee is at best Fairtrade and even better part of the Rainforest Alliance (such as Halo’s Daterra Moonlight.)
Another measurement worth noting is the amount of beans required to make your morning brew. Ground coffee uses more beans to prepare a single cup than pods. 3 tablespoons of ground coffee equates to approximately 15.39 grams of beans, compared to 5-10grams in a pod. Those extra grams soon add up, increasing the amount of coffee beans that have to be grown, harvested, processed and transported.
The remaining half of coffee’s environmental impact lies with the consumer. Shopping habits, appliances used, brewing method and waste disposal all play a factor. When you boil the kettle and put your mug in the dishwasher after a couple of uses, the energy you use is roughly the same as that used in the growing, processing, transporting and packaging of your coffee.
No matter how you choose to make your coffee, the bulk of the energy goes into heating up the water. The humble kettle eats up about 6% of all the electricity supplied to British homes. The average cost to brew seven espressos costs about 1p using a capsule machine whereas your average kettle costs about 2.5p to boil. Coffee pods only use the amount of water and coffee needed for one portion, while many ground coffee drinkers will often have leftovers in their pot that they throw away. If that pot goes cold and you decide heat in a microwave you use significantly more energy than a capsule machine. Energy consumption is always greatly affected by the machine you use, so when choosing your appliance look for models with energy efficient functions such as automated shutoffs or lower watt usage, alternatively turn the machine completely off in-between uses.
Packaging contributes to 10% of the overall environmental impact. Most supermarket stocked ground coffee, or beans, come in metalised plastic bags to keep coffee fresh and away from moisture. These are unrecyclable. Some coffee bags use unbleached kraft and rice paper as green alternatives, but they still need to be lined to protect the beans and this is usually plastic. Plastic-coated paper can be recycled, but only in facilities that have the right equipment so it’s not commonplace. Compostable coffee pods means the capsules can degrade quickly (28 days for a Halo pod in home compost) and naturally. Recycling requires the need for collection, transportation and the use of specialist machinery resulting in a larger carbon footprint.
Whatever brewing method is chosen, all coffee grounds are compostable. They are best recycled into the garden. Mixing them with soil acts as a natural fertiliser. This is not only beneficial for gardeners but it helps in reducing the amount of waste going into landfills. When coffee grounds are dumped into landfills they create methane, which is a greenhouse gas. Using biodegradable capsules that can go straight into the compost makes the whole process cleaner and convenient (especially if you don’t have a garden!) plus less water is wasted for use of cleaning out pots etc.
To be an environmentally conscious coffee drinker, you should take measures to reduce your water use, energy use, and purchase coffee from sustainable suppliers. Your coffee’s carbon footprint will shoot up with the inclusion of any dairy products so think about switching to black. With all those factors in mind we believe opting for well sourced biodegradable coffee pods come out on top in this sustainability versus-battle.
Elsevier Journal of Cleaner Production Vol 17 issue 15 Oct 09 Pages 1351-1358
ScientificAmerican.com How Green Is Your Coffee