According to the British Coffee Association, we consume around 95 million cups of coffee a day, which is 644 million cups of coffee a week, or nearly 34.5 billion cups of coffee a year. Christ, we love coffee. Now the hope is that with such a high consumption is that everyone does their bit from an environmental perspective. No one wants to be that person that sticks a recyclable coffee cup in a regular bin - oh the glares. But there is much more to the coffee supply chain than just the end consumer, so let's consider all stages of the process and take a look at the environmental impact of the preceding steps.
Coffee Supply Chain & Its Processes
1/ Coffee plant growth
Primary coffee growing countries are situated around the equator, which has led to the term ‘The Bean Belt’. The plant itself flourishes in these countries as they offer the perfect growing conditions - mid to high elevations and tropical conditions. However, the coffee plant does not deal well in constant sunlight as this leads to a browning of the leaves. If producers follow best practice, opting to cultivate coffee plants should not lead to extensive deforestation and would in fact lead to the encouragement of biodiversity. This is a big tick for environmental impact, providing best practice is followed.
Unfortunately, best practice isn’t and cannot always be followed. According to the Rainforest Alliance, increased coffee production over the past decade has led to more farmland being required, which has increased the potential for this land to expand into forest areas. Whilst most coffee was historically produced through shade-grown cultivation, in the last few decades, coffee plantations have changed their approaches and have been deforesting large areas of land to maximise sun exposure. In addition, coffee production is expected to become an even bigger driver of deforestation over the coming decades due to increasing demand, as well as the general effects of climate change that will likely shift suitable regions to higher altitudes that are currently comprised of valuable forests.
According to the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC), certain coffee production methods are also exposing farmers to crop failure by focusing all their efforts into growing just one species of plant. This approach causes environmental problems through a lack of diversification as it exposes crops to disease and decreases biodiversity, whilst also interfering with the migratory patterns of birds.
Finally, throughout the growing period, which can be between 3-5 years, chemical components are sometimes used. Fertilisers may be used to encourage development. Whilst this does present environmental hazards, such as groundwater pollution or eutrophication, their use can be minimised if the optimal growing conditions are presented. Pesticides may also be used throughout the growing process, although the coffee plant has it's own natural defence mechanism in the form of caffeine. In theory, as robusta has higher amounts of caffeine than arabica does, the natural deterrent in arabica may need to be supplemented with pesticides. The truth, however, is that many farmers typically cannot afford either pesticides or fertilisers, so the plants are often grown unaided.
2/ Coffee preparation
After cultivating the plants into trees that produce cherry-like fruits, there are 3 main process methods available to producers - natural, washed and honey.
Naturally processed coffees are left to dry on patios or raised beds, whereby the surrounding pulp acts as a casing that allows fermentation to happen in a closed environment, all before the cherry is hulled and milled. Washed coffees are firstly pulped using either a machine or water, before then being fermented to remove the mesocarp (also known as mucilage) layer, after which it is dried and milled. Honey processing is a method that straddles the two approaches, whereby the cherry is pulped and then dried with the mucilage layer still left on the parchment.
Out of the three methods, the washed coffee process typically requires the most amount of energy, as well as that which leads to the most quantity of negative environmental impacts, such as water pollution or waste byproducts. Fortunately, both water pollution and the production of waste byproducts can (and are) being proactively addressed. Water pollution is being combatted through a reduction in water being used or reusing the water for bio-fertilisers. Attempts are also being made to purify the water before releasing it back into the waterways. As well bio-fertilisers, waste byproducts, such as the cherry or defective beans, can be reused to create biofuel and biomass for energy.
3/ Wholebeans transportation
In a study commissioned by Paulig and carried out by the National Resources Institute Finland, the transportation of coffee was found to only account for around 4% of the carbon emissions produced during a coffee's lifecycle. Clearly this is dependent on the type of transportation used to move the coffee from one location to another, but it does suggest that other parts in the process may actually account for a larger proportion of coffees environmental impact.
4/ Coffee roasting, brewing and consumer consumption
Now we get to the final part of the process. The coffee beans have made their way from the respective regions in which they are grown. Our roasters are now in possession and it is time for them to work their magic. However, this magic requires energy and lots of it. In fact, this is widely considered to bethe most energy intensive part of the process.
Both the roasting of the beans and the after burning process use considerable quantities of fuel and produce vast amounts of emissions, which can partly be attributed to the extreme temperatures roasters operate at. After roasting, the emissions produced need to be oxidised in large industrial afterburners. These emissions are a mixture of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are composed of a number of organic chemicals, as well a number of greenhouse gas emissions.
The environmental impact of then brewing coffee is potentially even greater, although this will largely depend on the energy inputs to that method. For example, the process by which the water is heated or whether energy is required during the extraction process. Machines will require electricity, whilst the more manual methods, such as the Aeropress or V60, won’t. On a commercial scale in a coffeehouse or café, whatever approach is opted for will increase that energy requirement drastically and so the impact.
Another issue with the end of the process is the volume of single-use coffee cups that are used each year. Unfortunately, only a very small percentage of these are actually recycled, which means that the plastic coating on these single-use cups pollute landfills and contributes to pollution of our oceans and waterways. Whilst there are roasters that offer biodegradable cups, the impact is still widespread.
So, what is being done to combat these environmental impacts throughout the process?
Whilst we may have painted a bleak picture of the process, its not all bad. There is work being done on addressing the issues we've presented and, on a global scale, there are a number of certification schemes driving change:
4C have developed a framework that sets out a baseline of sustainable practices and principles for the production of green coffee beans. From an environmental perspective, this relates to the conservation of biodiversity, limiting the use of pesticides, soil conservation, water sources and waste water produced, as well as a number of other areas. By supporting farmers globally in navigating these potentially damaging elements of the production process, a 4C certification helps roasters and coffee suppliers to encourage environmental sustainability from the outset.
Rainforest Alliance are a global organisation that focuses on sustainable forest enterprise initiatives. Over 2 million farmers have used their methods, which are aimed at improving their livelihoods and at protecting the environments in which they operate. Through an end-to-end alliance of farmers, forest communities, companies and consumers, they are committed to creating a world where people and nature thrive in harmony.
Fairtrade has been designed to help producers in developing countries to achieve more favourable trading conditions. In relation to coffee, the premium that is achieved by farmers is reinvested back to improve the quality and productivity of their productions, as well allowing them to maintain a focus on environmental sustainability.
What Can We Do To Help, As The Coffee Drinker?
Whilst the above schemes are addressing some of the issues at the source, there is still much to do at the consumer end of the process. So, how can you do your bit? Here's a few ideas from us:
- Avoid the single use scenario - The majority of disposable cups are not biodegradable so will end up polluting landfill sites. Either use a reusable cup or opt for a roaster that serves in 100% biodegradable cups. We'll release a follow up blog to this outlining a few recommended roasters.
- Look for the certifications - Buying coffee than has been certified by one of the above global initiatives, or indeed by one of the privately owned certification initiatives, ensures that a consideration for the environment has been factored into the production process.
- Efficiency ratings - For brewing methods that require electricity, consider the efficiency rating as part of your review. This information should be readily available when reading up on any machine. Or, you could try more manual brewing methods, as and when you have time. For example, the ROK Espresso maker removes the requirement for electricity during the extraction process. All you need to add is coffee and hot water and you've got yourself an espresso.
- Packaging - Coffee comes in all sorts of different packing. Be sure to choose a roaster that only uses 100% recyclable materials to pack their products.
- Recycle, recycle, recycle - Too often we see people taking a perfectly recyclable cup and putting it into a bin destined for landfill. All that work by the roaster is then for nothing. On the flip side, we also see people taking a non-recyclable cup and placing it into a recyclable bin, which can lead to the entire batch being deemed unsuitable for recycling. Be clear on what can and cant be. Or, if you're not sure, just ask.
GUSTATORY's curation team consider environmental impacts on all coffees available by coffee box subscription, featuring only those coffee roasters who are actively making an effort towards positive environmental action. Suchlike can also be said about the roasters featured on the GUSTATORY coffee marketplace.
GUSTATORY (adjective): curating excellence in taste.