Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, and it’s not hard to see why. Coffee has a rich history dating back centuries, and millions of people love their coffee in the morning.
However, coffee poses non-trivial environmental impacts.
These impacts are mainly due to the cultivation of coffee, the transport of coffee, and the waste produced by the coffee industry.
Fortunately, there are ways to enjoy your daily caffeine fix while being environmentally responsible!
The Impacts of Coffee Cultivation
The impacts of coffee cultivation are wide-ranging. To grow coffee, land must be cleared of natural vegetation to make room for the coffee plants themselves.
The demand for coffee is high all over the world, driving up competition among farmers. This can lead to unsustainable practices such as cutting down trees in protected areas where logging is not permitted – including national parks! This contributes to climate change as clearing vegetation releases of CO₂ into the atmosphere.
Further, a large percentage of coffee is cultivated in monocultures, which are large areas of land that have one type of plant growing on them. This has the advantage of greater coffee yields because they are grown under full sun. However, this also means the land is not being used for anything else and, like other monocultures such as corn or soybeans, this can cause environmental problems.
Eventually fertilizers and pesticides are needed because the soil nutrients are not naturally replenished. This means that on average, after 5 to 10 years, more land is needed for coffee plantations (and it often comes from pristine rainforests).
How do I Mitigate the Impacts of Coffee Cultivation?
Make sure your coffee is shade-grown in polycultures. This means that other plant species besides coffee are grown in the same area where the beans were planted. One of the advantages of polycultures is that different types of vegetation and wildlife will die and decay over time, naturally replenishing the soil nutrients. Over time, thanks to polycultures, the plot of land can last for many years and even generations!
From the perspective of a consumer, look for coffee with the Smithsonian Bird Friendly Certification. This ensures that shade-grown coffee is cultivated in a way where the local habitat for wildlife remains as intact as possible.
If you are unable to find coffee beans with this Certification, seek the USDA and Fairtrade labels.
The Impacts of Coffee Transport
Most coffee is cultivated near the equator. This means it is transported thousands of miles to North America, either by ship or plane, emitting CO2 along the way.
Oftentimes, coffee is shipped for roasting first and then distributed all around of the world. This adds to the distance coffee must travel before it finds its way to your local store. For example, beans cultivated in Colombia could be sent to Italy for roasting, and then in turn could be shipped to the US for consumption.
How do I Mitigate the Impacts of Coffee Transport?
As a consumer, you can mitigate the impacts of coffee transport by buying beans that are roasted locally.
This will also ensure fresher tasting coffee (roasted less than two weeks ago).
The Impacts of Coffee Waste
Waste is one of the biggest problems of coffee. The magnitude of this problem is best understood by listing a few statistics, such as the 10 billion K-cups Keurig produced in 2015. Or the 25 billion coffee cups per year that on average end up in the US landfills. Plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose, and so before decomposing, it can end up in our oceans, and the food we eat!
How Can I Minimize My Coffee Waste?
Here are some ways to reduce your coffee waste.
- Make coffee at home, but don’t use capsule coffee machines or coffee machines with disposable filters.
- Prepare the amount of coffee you will drink. Don’t fill out that carafe unless you have guests.
- Sometimes we need to go to a coffee shop to get that specialty coffee drink we all crave. Not everyone has an espresso machine at home. So, when you do, bring your own mug or choose a coffee shop that is environmentally friendly.
- If you really love the convenience of capsule machines, then purchase reusable capsules.
- In the long term, invest in a quality coffee maker that will last for a long time. This will reduce waste and save you money along the way.