How to make your cup of coffee more sustainable

As the second most sought after commodity in the world, there is no denying that coffee has a big impact on the environment and sadly that impact is mostly negative. All along the production chain, from the growing and transportation to the consumer there are many factors that harm our planet. There are the coffee farms that have turned their land into monocultures, the high water-use in coffee production and the long transportation routes it has to cover to get to us. And let’s not forget about the crucial role it plays in the role of the 25 million growers producing the beans [1] and who more often than not live in poverty because of exploitation (click here if you want to read more about this).

Now, this doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy our daily cup of coffee anymore but it does mean that we need to make some changes in our habit to reduce the negative effects of our coffee consumption. By making small adjustments in your daily routine you too can make your cup of coffee much more sustainable. Every smart choice will make a difference!

Step 1: The beans

Buying the coffee beans is the first step in your coffee habit and incidentally it is also where you can make the most significant contribution to the sustainability of your coffee. The choice you make decides what type of coffee production you support not only regarding environmental practices but also the social and financial effect on coffee growers. There are a few things you need to pay attention to if you want to make the right, meaning the most sustainable, choice:

First, while labels like Fairtrade or organic may promise to be ethical and economically friendly they still are not always the best option. Sure, they are an improvement from standard, non-fairtrade products but they are still far from being perfect and there are also big differences between the various labels out there. If you really want to buy the most sustainable beans possible you will have to do some research on the different products available to you and not rely on labels to make the decision for you.

Beans after roasting at Mamé Noka

Also, as with most if not all products it is best to buy locally, this way the transportation routes are as short as possible and you support your local economy. So, look for roasters near you (like Mamé Noka if you live in Brussels) and make sure they value sustainability as much as you do. If you don’t know where to start looking you can go to your favourite coffee shop and ask for advice.

Lastly, choosing coffee beans packaged in reusable containers will reduce waste and thus is more environmentally friendly. Make sure that your coffee is sold in glass or metal jars than you either refill with new beans once it’s empty, repurpose in your home (for storage, packed lunches, decoration) or give back to the store or roaster you got it from so they can reuse them.

Our reusable glass jars

Step 2: The method

Now, once you have your sustainable coffee beans, the next step is preparing the actual coffee. There are a lot of different methods and appliances out there to do this, some more environmentally friendly than others.

The first tip here is to never ever use pod-machines such as nespresso! Although they might be convenient, they produce an incredible amount of waste, which for the most part can not be recycled, plus they also consume a lot of energy.

“A pod machine creates 10 times the amount of solid waste as a drip coffee maker.” [2]

Instead make your coffee using one of the many devices that are reusable by nature, such as the French press, moka top, or aero press. Or if you prefer filter coffee, invest in a reusable filter made out of metal or cloth (which you can find at Dille & Kamille for example), instead of throwing out paper filters every day. All of these methods produce next to no waste and if you take care of them, these appliances can be used for years making them also a good financial investment.

Sustainable filter coffee

Step 3: The preparation

Now on to the actual preparation of your coffee: unless you are into cold brew, you will always have to heat up water to make it, which obviously takes a certain amount of energy. To make sure you don’t use more energy than absolutely necessary, you have to be careful to only heat up the amount of water you really need. If you want to make one cup of coffee there’s no reason to boil an entire liter of water.

Another significant way of reducing the ecological footprint of your coffee habit is your choice of milk. Animal agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate [3] change because of the resources it uses as well as the greenhouse gases and the waste it produces. So, instead of drinking cow’s milk how about switching to a plant-based alternative? There are loads of choices available in most supermarkets, such as soy, oat or almond milk and many more. Each of them has a different flavour and consistency meaning you can experiment and try out different options until you find one that you like and that compliments your coffee best. Of course, adding no milk at all is also a good option if you prefer it that way.

Lastly, drink your coffee from a reusable cup, whether you’re at home or taking it out with you. And if you know you’re going to have multiple cups in a day, no need to wash your cup every time: just rinse it and reuse it later to save some more water.

Step 4: The waste

Now, if you follow all previous steps the only “waste” that you should end up with after enjoying your cup of coffee are the used coffee grounds. But there is no need to throw these in the trash, in fact there are many, many ways to reuse them:

Luckily, as coffee grounds are made entirely from organic material, they are biodegradable which means you can simply compost them or use them as mulch to fertilize your plants. They are also an all-natural repellent against slugs and snails so they can protect your home-grown veggies from getting eaten by anyone but yourself.

Roses fertilized with coffee grounds

And if you don’t have garden or any house plants why not use the coffee grounds for skin care or even to give your hair more brilliance? Plus, they can also come in handy around the house to repel unappealing smells or to clean dishes. Check out naturallivingideas for more ideas and detailed explanations.

Step 5: Going out for coffee

Lastly, whenever you are not making your coffee at home but going out for a cup, there are still decisions you can make in order to keep the environmental impact to a minimum.

Many are similar to what you can do at home, the most obvious one being not to get your coffee in plastic or even paper cups as they will just go to waste once you have finished your drink. Instead, bring your own reusable to-go cup which will not only keep your coffee warm for longer but also get you a discount in many coffee shops. Plus, many coffee shops nowadays offer plant milks as alternatives to regular cow milk too.

Maybe even more important is where you choose to buy your coffee on the go: big brands like Starbucks or McCafé may be tempting because they are familiar and you can find them everywhere, however they are usually not the best option. And, yes Starbucks has made a big effort to produce and sell more sustainable and fair coffee which has a positive influence on big parts of the coffee industry, but they are still far from being perfect. For example, the coffee beans used by such big brands are far from being roasted locally instead they come from big roasting mills most likely quite far away from the coffee shop you frequent. Really the best thing you can do is to go local coffee shops and find one that you like and that follow the sustainable and responsible concept.

Boentje Café: zero waste concept and Mamé Noka coffee (source: toquedechoque)

There are many simple ways to change your coffee habit so it becomes more sustainable. If you follow all or even a few of them you will significantly reduce the amount of water and resources used to make your cup of coffee as well as the waste produced. Also, as well as protecting the environment, your choice can improve the lives of coffee growers all over the world. Remember each little action helps and together we can make a big difference!

Want to read more?
Sustainable coffee habit: [1]
Environmental impact of coffee: [1] [2]
Starbucks: [1] [2]

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