Coffee and the American morning go together like peanut butter and jelly. More than 60 percent of Americans drink it daily, the country averaging three cups per person for a total of 400 million cups of coffee per day. The United States leads consumer consumption globally.
The downside to America’s coffee habit is rampant waste: One sobering statistic suggests 25 billion cardboard and styrofoam cups, used only once, are tossed into the American waste stream each year.
Coffee drinking will never be a truly closed-loop, sustainable activity — for starters, it grows in far-flung places. Given climate change threatens coffee production worldwide, every effort to reduce one’s carbon footprint helps ensure a future with coffee in it; this includes buying beans from thoughtful roasters, going the manual brewing route at home, and carrying reusable vessels.
1. Know the Roaster
The first step to conscientious coffee drinking is to consider the bean source. Specialty coffee roaster groups such as Cooperative Coffee, which boasts over 20 members, source organic coffee from small-scale farmers, emphasizing long-term, sustainable practices. Counter Culture, although not a member of such a cooperative, applies the same ethos with its remarkable transparency, laying bare all its 300-plus contracts with farmers, as well as measuring its greenhouse gas emissions, plastic reduction, and pricing.
Other roasters have overhauled their operations and capital investments. For example, Peet’s Coffee built the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified roasting plant in Alameda, Calif., in 2007. More than 75 percent of construction waste from the project was recycled. Currently, Peet’s roasting operations, serving 252 locations across the U.S., use 40 percent less natural gas, run on high efficiency lighting, and conserve water use.
2. Pick Packaging Wisely
To keep coffee fresh, home users can’t buy in bulk, rather deferring to 12- and 16-ounce bags. The cumulative effect: 145 million bags into the garbage worldwide, annually. To combat this, Brooklyn Roasting Company’s 12-ounce tin-steel containers are designed for segregation by magnet in landfills.
Some roasters, such as Sweet Bloom in Denver and Sightglass in San Francisco, offer not just biodegradable, but compostable bags. However, consumers must remember to remove the tin tie and degassing valve. Even further along the curve is Elevate Packaging’s completely compostable coffee bag. Companies like TerraCycle offer recycling solutions for coffee bags, though the onus is on the consumer to track down deposit bins.
3. Grind With Care
Compared to electric machines, manual grinders require more time, effort, and, unfortunately, can be limited in capacity to less than the equivalent of two mugs. The good news is that the build quality and precision of manual grinders introduced in the last decade means users won’t sacrifice precision, control, or longevity.
Spare those elbows and shoulder joints with a quality hand grinder offering steel burrs for speed and uniformity and two-mug capacity (at least 35 grams). Plan on spending far more than $100 on grinders like the 1Zpresso J series, JX, Kinu M47, or Orphan Lido 3.
4. Do it for the Gram
Specialty coffee enthusiasts know brewing, like baking, demands careful measurements. However, few modern analog scales are sensitive enough to measure within 1 gram of precision. Plus, most scales are digital, requiring batteries or electricity. The solar scale by MUJI is one of few renewable energy options offering 1 gram increments.
5. Find a Reusable Filter
Brewing coffee at home saves money and cuts down on to-go cups. For those lucky enough to own a Chemex Coffeemaker, first made in 1941 (and seen in Don Draper’s kitchen in “Mad Men”), a reusable cloth filter or cone can be used in place of single-use paper filters. The CoffeeSock is handmade in Austin, Texas, from organic cotton grown in North Carolina.
Maintenance is simple: Rinse and dry between each use, then boil every four to six weeks to remove coffee oils. Stainless steel filters are even easier to maintain. Ovalware and Barista Warrior both sell cones in three finishes: stainless steel, gold and rose gold/copper, respectively. Able Kone has great design chops, albeit for double the price.
6. Consider the Cup
Most — almost all — cups can’t be recycled because they are coated with a plastic resin. Companies have made strides toward compostable or recyclable versions, though so far, there’s been little scale. Starbucks recently announced product trials of greener cups with biodegradable liners. Of course, this still requires users to dispose of them properly.
Besides the sheer physical volume of waste, cup production is energy- and resource-intensive. According to the nonprofit Clear Water Fund, “Eighty percent of the pollution happens upstream during the extraction and manufacturing phase of the product’s life-cycle before it even reaches a consumer’s hands. Transporting used cups to a landfill or recycling facility is energy intensive.”
Instead of demanding technology serve throwaway culture, a collective mind shift, like we did with straws, can curtail waste. In essence: Carry a reusable mug. A host of options have hit the market, employing different materials and solutions to the same problem. As an incentive to BYO, many coffee shops now offer discounts for the effort.
The Joco Cup features a glass wall wrapped in silicone. However, one drawback for consumers on foot and not in cars is that the heavier glass can drop and shatter. Keep Cup offers a lighter solution: In addition to glass and stainless steel, the company produces a reusable plastic version. Additionally, an innovative brand out of Australia won a design award for its Huskee Cup made of coffee husk, an organic waste material produced during coffee milling. Skip bamboo cups for now; they’ve been shown to leach chemicals into hot liquids.
Of course, the ultimate way to enjoy coffee from a café sustainably is to sit down with a ceramic mug and sip it mindfully, like they did in the old days. But until that time arises, consider these actionable items to make your coffee consumption better for the environment.