Claim: Here’s how your cup of coffee contributes to climate change

Scientists say that wasting coffee and water while making a cup of coffee has a greater carbon footprint than using coffee capsules. (Unsplash)

Luciano Rodrigues Viana, University of Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC); Charles Marty, University of Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC); Jean-François Boucher, University of Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC)and Pierre-Luc Dessureault, University of Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC)

Global coffee consumption increases steadily for almost 30 years. With an average daily consumption of 2.7 cups of coffee per person, coffee is currently Canada’s most popular drink. That is estimated that about two billion cups of coffee consumed every day around the world.

This demand has led to considerable diversification in the way coffee is prepared, including the creation of coffee capsules. The popularity of these capsules has divided public opinion because this preparation method, using single-use individual packaging, is harmful to the environment.

As researchers work to assess the environmental impact of products and services, we often discuss coffee’s carbon footprint.

We decided to study the carbon footprint of some of the techniques used to make coffee at home, and it turns out that coffee capsules are not the biggest carbon culprit.

Coffee life cycle

Pollution from home brewing is just the tip of the iceberg.

Before you can enjoy a cup of coffee, it goes through a number of steps, starting from the agricultural production of the coffee beans, to transporting, roasting and grinding the beans, to boiling the water for brewing and washing the cups that are poured in.

These steps, common to all coffee brewing methods, consume resources and emit greenhouse gases (GHG).

To fully compare the carbon footprint of several coffee-making methods, it is important to to consider their entire life cycle: from coffee production, through the production of packaging and machinery, to coffee making and the waste generated.

Compare four methods of preparing coffee

We decided to study this issue more deeply and conduct a extensive literature review on this subject. We then measured the carbon footprint of coffee by comparing four methods of preparing 280 ml of coffee, namely:

1) Traditional filter coffee (25 grams of coffee)

2) Filtered coffee (14 grams of coffee)

3) French press (17 grams of coffee)

4) instant coffee (12 grams of coffee) aka instant coffee

Our analysis clearly shows that traditional filter coffee has the highest carbon footprint, mainly due to the large amount of coffee powder used to produce that amount of coffee. This process also consumes more electricity to heat the water and keep it warm.

Bar graph showing the carbon emissions over the brewing life of different types of coffee and brewing methods
Carbon emissions are generated over the life of the coffee, the preparation of the different forms of coffee, and the brewing method. (Luciano Rodrigues Viana). Author provided.

When consumers use the recommended amount of coffee and water, instant coffee seems to be the most eco-friendly option. This is because the amount of instant coffee used per cup is low, the electric consumption of the kettle is lower than that of a coffee machine, and there is no organic waste to be disposed of.

On the other hand, when consumers use a 20% excess of coffee and heat twice as much water as needed (which is often the case), coffee capsules seem to be the best option. Why? Because capsules allow you to optimize the amount of coffee and water per consumption.

Compared with traditional filter coffee, drinking coffee filter capsule (280 ml) saves from 11 to 13 grams of coffee. Produce 11 grams Arabica Coffee in Brazil emit about 59 grams of CO2e (CO2 equivalent). This value is much higher than the 27 grams of CO2e emitted when producing coffee capsules and sending the generated waste to a landfill. These numbers show how important it is to avoid overuse and waste of coffee.

coffee production

Regardless of the type of coffee brewing, coffee production is the stage with the most greenhouse gas emissions. It contributes about 40% to 80% of total emissions. There are many reasons for this.

A coffee plantation
The coffee production process is the main cause of coffee’s carbon footprint due to the application of intensive irrigation, fertilization and pesticide systems. (AP Photo/Moise Castillo)

Coffee tree is a stunted small tree or shrub traditionally grown in the shade of the forest canopy. Industry modernization has resulted in the conversion of many coffee plantations into large fields fully exposed to the sun. This adds to the need for intensive irrigation, fertilizing systems and the use of pesticides.

The mechanization, irrigation and use of fertilizers emit nitrogen oxides — the production process requires large amounts of natural gas — which contributes greatly to coffee’s carbon footprint.

Reduce the carbon footprint of coffee

At the consumer level, in addition to reducing coffee consumption, avoiding coffee and water waste is the most effective way to reduce the carbon footprint of traditional coffee, ready-to-drink and instant coffee.

Coffee capsules avoid overuse of coffee and water. However, the convenience of a capsule machine could lead consumers to double their coffee consumption, thus making this environmental advantage redundant. Consumers should also be aware of capsule recycling options in their city to avoid being sent to a landfill instead of a recycling facility. Better yet, they should switch to reusable capsule.

If you live in a province or country with a carbon-intensive electricity generation industry, ditching your coffee maker’s heating plate and rinsing the cup with cold water can help reduce your carbon footprint.

Electricity used to wash a cup of coffee in Alberta, a high carbon electricity producing province, which emits more carbon (29 grams of CO2e) than producing a coffee capsule and sending it to landfill (27 grams of CO2e). In Québec, thanks to hydroelectricWashing your cups in the dishwasher has a negligible impact (0.7 grams of CO2e per cup).

By the way, don’t forget to refill your dishwasher!

joint responsibility

Limiting your contribution to climate change requires a consistent diet, and coffee is no exception. Choosing a brewing regimen that emits less greenhouse gases and controlling your consumption is part of the solution.

However, more than half of coffee’s carbon footprint comes from steps taken by coffee producers and suppliers. They have to take take action to reduce the environmental and social impacts of coffee production.

Our research shows that reviews based on lifecycle analysis or overall vision of products like coffee can challenge our intuitive reasoning, which is sometimes misleading. So instead of avoiding speculative-based products, we need to take a holistic view of our own consumption habits. Change begins at home.

Luciano Rodrigues VianaDoctor of environmental sciences, Département des sciences fondamentales, University of Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC); Charles MartyAssociate Professor, University of Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC); Jean-François BoucherProfessor, Ecological Consultant, University of Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC)and Pierre-Luc Dessureaultresearch assistant, University of Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC)

This post was reposted from Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read original article.


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