What is a fair price to pay for coffee? Would you content yourself with a quick and easy $1 coffee from a convenience store, or can you justify spending $US80 for Kopi Luwak that has been digested by an Indonesian civet?
The price you pay for your coffee is entirely up to you and your taste buds, but what about the price to the planet? The cultivation, consumption and disposal of coffee all impact on the natural environment, and the choices individuals make on a daily basis can have a positive or negative impact on the planet.
You’ve probably witnessed the following scene:
“Yes, please,” replies Jay, trying in vain to suppress a yawn.
“One skim latte, one sugar,” calls Tim to his fellow bearded barista, who frantically scribbles Jay’s initials and the order code on the lid of a disposable cup.
“Long night?” asks Tim
“Oh, yeah, final pitch for a big client this morning, so not much sleep”
“Well, this’ll help,” promises Tim, handing Jay the skim latte.
“You’re a lifesaver,” replies Jay, taking a desperate sip before hurrying to the office. “See you tomorrow!”
Jay is like so many people in urban areas of developed countries who collect their caffeinated elixir on the way to the office five days a week in a disposable coffee cup.
Five cups a week.
40 – 50 weeks a year.
200 – 250 cups per year in landfill.
For one person.
But cups are biodegradable…
Not all of them. Thankfully technology has improved sufficiently to make some disposable cups more biodegradable, but many are not and still contain plastic to make them watertight. In some parts of the world takeaway coffee is always served in cups that are not biodegradable – they don’t even try to be sustainable. Furthermore, one biodegradable coffee cup in landfill is still worse than no disposable cup in landfill.
Get a reusable coffee cup.
Get yourself a reusable coffee cup. Maybe get two in case you forget to wash one before heading out. If you can afford regular take away coffee, you can afford one or two reusable cups.
What about COVID-19?
Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented cafes and vendors from accepting reusable cups over concerns for hygiene – understandably. However, in regions which are lifting restrictions some vendors are now accepting reusable cups again.
Disposable cups for dine in
I still don’t understand why people order coffee in a disposable cup when they know they’ll consume it at the cafe. They sit there happily sipping away on their coffee dissecting last night’s episode of their favourite reality TV show, when they could have taken their coffee in a coffee mug.
The owner of a cafe once told me that people prefer disposbale cups because they think they keep the coffee warm for longer, or because they just like the feel of the disposable cup.
Do they like the feel of climate change?
Surely it’s better to consume coffee in a mug that was designed specifically for the consumption of coffee. Also, do European cafes, especially in France or Italy, serve coffee in disposable cups for customers dining in?
What about Brazil?
Brazil is as famous for coffee as it is for football. Anecdotal evidence suggests this habit is very uncommon in Brazil. Apparently, it is also forbidden in some larger Brazilian cities to serve coffee in a disposable cup to customers who are dining in.
Why can’t this rule be introduced in other parts of the world?
Coffee grounds are the most visible by-product of coffee consumption. They can either make their way into landfill or into a garden. They can even become furniture.
Coffee grounds at home
Coffee grounds can be put into worms farms or compost bins. This is easy for households using these sustainable waste management systems. Just throw them in with your food scraps and other biodegradable material. I’ve always wondered, does caffeine have the same effect on worms as it does on humans? Does it make them more productive or more hungry? I wonder if the worms tell their companions;
“Don’t come near me until I’ve had some caffeine”
Some backyard gardeners will put their coffee grounds straight into their gardens, mixed in with the soil. There are different ways to do this based on the soil type, climate, season, region and type of plants. Some cafes will even give away used coffee grounds to customers for this purpose. Before adding grounds to your garden, do some research and seek advice from experts, because adding them incorrectly can harm some plants.
It’s even more beneficial to the earth if the coffee grounds themselves are organic. This means that the coffee has been grown with only natural chemicals which protect the soil and the waterways which are used to grow the crops. It’s also healthier for your body and for the soil which will be created in the compost system and later transferred to your garden.
It has also been found that treating coffee in a certain way can help to capture greenhouse gases.
Coffee grounds at cafes
As well as offering used grounds to customers for gardening, many cafes are now recycling their grounds in other ways. Organisations throughout the world collect grounds from cafes in urban areas and take them to places where they can be added to compost or transformed into other products.
Warm, soothing coffee
In the UK, coffee keeps people warm and toasty even after it has been consumed. A company called bio-bean acquires grounds from universities, businesses and train stations throughout the country and converts them into coffee logs for use in fireplaces.
The logs apparently burn 20% hotter and longer than kiln-dried wood. Plus, the logs are said to generate 80% fewer emissions than sending coffee grounds to landfill.
On a larger scale, coffee grounds are being turned into biofuels and even cleaning products. Research has found that grounds are rich in natural oils, potassium and nitrogen, and have an abrasive texture that makes them suitable as cleaning products.
So, next time your house mate leaves coffee stains throughout the house, remember that they’re actually cleaning…
Some people even use caffeine to clean their hair, as they claim that it loosens and removes residue left behind by styling products.
The uses of coffee grounds are almost endless. People have found ways to use them for everything from ‘gardeners soap’ to insect repellent, as well as repairing furniture, tenderising or marinating meat and protecting pets from fleas or keeping them away from your plants.
It doesn’t end there.
The RITI Printer converts grounds into printer ink, and is labelled the coffee printer. What’s more, the device itself uses much less electricity than standard printers, and the vessel that holds the used coffee grounds (or old tea leaves) can be refilled.
Re-worked, a non-profit design company, combines coffee grounds with with recycled waste plastics to form a composite material which is durable and waterproof, and can be used to make home furnishings including chairs, bar stools, and…coffee tables.
Coffee in coffee
It had to be done.
It was just a matter of time.
A coffee cup made from coffee grounds.
A young German chap by the name of Julian Lechner created Kaffeeform, which produces espresso cups and saucers made out of coffee grounds combined with sustainably sourced wood and natural glues.
Everyone loves the smell of coffee. No one loves the smell of body odour. A Taiwanese company called S. Cafe produces sports clothing with coffee grounds woven into yarn which helps remove the body odour from the clothing.
These clothes should be given to every teenage boy on the planet – deodorant can only cover so much…
The company also boasts that its clothes are fast-drying and protect wearers from UV rays.
Yes, you can wear your coffee on your sleeve.
Coffee is a daily ritual for so many people throughout the world. The cultivation, consumption and disposal of elements involved in the production of a cup of coffee can harm the environment, or can protect the planet if enough intelligent, considerate people take small steps to make sure coffee doesn’t cost the earth.
Images: Nathan Dumlao, Noora AlHammadi, Van Thanh