Dear EarthTalk: I drink a lot of coffee and I’m wondering how bad this is for the environment? And how I can make sure I’m feeding my 3-cup-a-day habit in the greenest way possible?
—Denny Mahon, Worcester, MA
About half of Americans over age 18 (some 150 million of us) drink coffee in some form—drip, iced or in an espresso or latte—every day, with three cups a day a typical average. These 450 million daily cups represent about one-fifth of the total daily global coffee consumption of 2.25 billion cups a day.
Traditionally grown in shady groves under the canopy of fruit trees, coffee has been one of the greenest crops there is. But modern demand, coupled with the so-called “Green Revolution” to boost yields by any means necessary, has dictated that coffee production follow the same monocultural path as other key commodity crops. Indeed, nowadays most of the coffee we drink comes from plantations where it is grown in full sun without competition from other crops and with lots of chemical inputs. The result has been widespread deforestation across the tropics (and a resulting devastation to biodiversity) to make room for more highly profitable coffee plantations.
Another big environmental problem with coffee production is water waste. A landmark 2003 study by Dutch researchers found that some 37 gallons of water are used (and subsequently wasted) to produce a single cup of coffee. And yet another hurdle for the coffee industry to overcome is the exploitation of workers, which in recent decades led to the birth of a “fair trade” movement to try to ensure economic justice in the industry.
So how do we make sure our coffee habit isn’t making these situations worse? Look for one or more certification labels on the coffee you buy. The “Rainforest Alliance Certified” frog logo shows you that the coffee in question comes from farms that provide habitat for tropical birds while paying workers fair wages. Meanwhile, the “Fair Trade USA Certified” globe with two baskets symbol means that the coffee you’re buying was produced using sustainable methods by workers and farmers who are not only paid fair wages but also get access to education, health care, clean water and job training. Yet another certification to look for is the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s “Bird-Friendly” mark which denotes that the coffee for sale is 100 percent shade-grown, fair trade and organic. UTZ Certified and Counter Culture Direct Trade Certified coffees are also produced and distributed without harming the environment or exploiting workers.
How you make your coffee also impacts the environment. The good old “pour over” method rivals the French press not only in simplicity but also in eco-friendliness given that neither rely on electricity. At the other end of the spectrum are the Keurig-type coffee makers, each cup of which yields not only your coffee but also an empty wasted plastic K-Cup pod to clog up your local landfill. If you can’t give up the convenience of your Keurig coffee maker at home—or you don’t have a choice at the office—at least source coffee that comes in compostable pods. Woken Coffee, for instance, comes in 100% compostable pods that can be tossed into food and yard waste bins after use to become part of someone else’s topsoil.