By Luciano Rodrigues Viana, Charles Marty, Jean-François Boucher, and Pierre-Luc Dessureault
Global coffee consumption has been increasing steadily for almost 30 years. With a daily average consumption of 2.7 cups of coffee per person, coffee is now Canada’s most popular drink after water, among some age groups, and the second-most popular in the United States. It is estimated that around two billion cups of coffee are consumed daily worldwide.
This demand has led to considerable diversification in the ways of preparing coffee as well, including the creation of coffee capsules. The popularity of these capsules has divided the public opinion because this method of preparation, which uses single-use individual packaging, is harmful to the environment.
As researchers working on assessing the environmental impacts of products and services, we often discuss coffee’s carbon footprint.
We decided to study the carbon footprint of several techniques used to prepare coffee at home, and it turns out that coffee capsules aren’t the biggest carbon culprits.
The life cycle of coffee
The pollution resulting from the preparation of coffee at home is just the tip of the iceberg.
Before you can enjoy a cup of coffee, it goes through several steps, starting from the agricultural production of the coffee beans, their transport, the roasting and grinding of the beans, right up to the heating of the water for the coffee and the washing of the cups it is poured in.
These steps, common to all modes of coffee preparation, consume resources and emit greenhouse gases (GHG).
To adequately compare the carbon footprint of several coffee preparation methods, it is important to consider their entire life cycle: from the production of coffee, through the manufacture of packaging and machinery, to the preparation of coffee and the waste produced.
Comparing four coffee preparation methods
We decided to study this further and conducted an extensive literature review on the subject. We then measured the carbon footprint of coffee by comparing four methods of preparing 280 millilitres of coffee, namely:
1) Traditional filter coffee (25 grams of coffee)
2) Encapsulated filter coffee (14 grams of coffee)
3) Brewed coffee (French press) (17 grams of coffee)
4) Soluble coffee (12 grams of coffee), also known as instant coffee
Our analysis clearly showed that traditional filter coffee has the highest carbon footprint, mainly because a greater quantity of coffee powder is used to produce the amount of coffee. This process also consumes more electricity to heat the water and keep it warm.
When consumers use the recommended amounts of coffee and water, soluble coffee appears to be the most environmentally friendly option. This is due to the low amount of soluble coffee used per cup, the kettle’s lower electricity consumption compared to a coffee maker and the absence of organic waste to be treated.
On the other hand, when consumers use a 20 per cent surplus of coffee and heat twice the water needed (which is often the case), coffee capsules seem to be the best option. Why? Because the capsules allow you to optimize the amount of coffee and water per consumption.
Compared to traditional filter coffee, drinking a capsule filter coffee (280 ml) saves between 11 and 13 grams of coffee. Producing 11 grams of Arabica coffee in Brazil emits about 59 grams of CO2e (CO2 equivalent). This value is much higher than the 27 grams of CO2e emitted for manufacturing of coffee capsules and sending the generated waste to a landfill. These figures give an idea of the importance of avoiding overusing and wasting coffee.
Regardless of the type of coffee preparation, coffee production is the most GHG-emitting phase. It contributed to around 40 per cent to 80 per cent of the total emission. There are many reasons for this.
The Coffee plant is a small stunted tree or shrub that was traditionally grown in the shade of the forest canopy. The modernization of the sector led to the transformation of many coffee plantations into vast fields that were fully exposed to the sun. This added the need for intensive irrigation, fertilization systems and the use of pesticides.
This mechanization, irrigation and use of nitrous oxide-emitting fertilizers — the production of which requires large quantities of natural gas — greatly contribute to coffee’s carbon footprint.
Reducing coffee’s carbon footprint
At the consumer level, beyond reducing coffee consumption, avoiding wasting coffee and water is the most effective way to reduce the carbon footprint of traditional, brewed and soluble coffees.
Coffee capsules avoid the overuse of coffee and water. However, the convenience of capsule machines can lead consumers to double their coffee consumption, thus making this environmental advantage redundant. Consumers should also be aware of the capsule recycling options in the city where they live to avoid it getting sent to a landfill instead of a recycling facility. Better yet, they should switch to reusable capsules.
If you live in a province or country with carbon-intensive electricity production, not using the coffee maker’s hot plate and rinsing the cup with cold water can help reduce carbon footprint.
The electricity used to wash a cup of coffee in Alberta, a high-carbon electricity production province, emits more carbon (29 grams CO2e) than producing a coffee capsule and sending it to landfill (27 grams CO2e). In Québec, thanks to hydroelectricity, washing your cup in a dishwasher has a negligible impact (0.7 grams of CO2e per cup).
By the way, don’t forget to fill your dishwasher!
Limiting your contribution to climate change requires an adapted diet, and coffee is no exception. Choosing a mode of coffee preparation that emits less GHGs and moderating your consumption are part of the solution.
However, more than half of the carbon footprint of coffee comes from the steps taken by coffee producers and suppliers. They must take action to reduce the environmental and social impacts of coffee production.
Our research reveals that assessments based on a life cycle analysis, or the holistic vision, of products like coffee make it possible to challenge our intuitive reasoning, which is sometimes misleading. So instead of avoiding products based on speculation, we need to take a holistic look at our own consumption habits. Change begins at home.
Luciano Rodrigues Viana is Doctorant en sciences de l’environnement, Département des sciences fondamentales, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC); Charles Marty is Adjunct professor, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC); Jean-François Boucher is Professeur in Eco-consulting, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC), and Pierre-Luc Dessureault is an Assistant researcher, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC)
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
Steve Naso says
So, we might as well do nothing but become couch potatoes……Did you know that 70% of the Earth’s surface is uncarbonated water? Therefore, the Earth is flat. All the carbonation escaped into the atmosphere, therby, contributing to climate change.
In Biden’s America, guilt is that you had a cup of coffee too many today.
Dennis C Rathsam says
Seems to me, everything we have enjoyed our whole life is being scrutinized by the WOKE tree huggers. Whats the point of life when you have some morons complaining about a cup of Joe? China, Russia, India, & Europe are not going green any time soon. So I,ll have my cup of coffee each morning, and I will enjoy it.
Article after article, administration after administration, folks seem to pick and choose the hot buttons when it comes to protecting the environment – cows expelling gas, plastics in the ocean, gas guzzling vehicles, types of coffee, etc. – yet little talk seems to be given to landfills with respect to wind, battery, solar and nail polish waste hazards. That’s right, nail polish is considered HHW – household hazardous waste – and it is estimated over 1 billion bottles hit the Earth’s landfills each year. Further concerning, each bottle can take up to 1 million years to biodegrade. How about we lean into the nail polish industry to be more environmentally conscious and find ways to educate the public on the necessity of taking nail polish rubbish to hazardous waste facilities or simply curb the use? The statistics are staggering and we as stewards of the Earth can do better.
I switched over to bulk English Tea.
I have a 16-ounce serving in the morning—that’s it.
I used to consume 32 ounces of arabica blend coffee every morning. I routinely threw out 1/3 of the pot because smaller brews never turned out ok and it was harming my stomach.
I am now a tea lover!
Pierre Tristam says
I can’t do away with either. A barrel of crude Norwegian coffee at dawn (Ikea), then half a barrel of loose-brewed tea, one of a dozen choices, then, alas, the switch to decaffeinated once past 10 or 11 a.m., otherwise my decrepit body will keep me up three quarters of the night. Otherwise I’d be alternating between coffee and tea all day, probably in IV form and a urostomy bag so as to reduce the work interruptions, otherwise I wouldn’t get any stories done.
You are the Palm Coast version of “El Exigente!”
The Caffeinator says
So now we’re supposed to have coffee shame? Why even bother with “coffee”, just go straight to telling us joy and happiness contributes to global warming and we’re all gonna die miserably.
Coffee Guzzler says
Get a life …… What’s next. sex is causing global Warming . I guess I’m going to die.
I see the frustration in the comments here, and I understand, well, with most of them. Gee Jimbo99, do you sleep, eat and dream Biden? Anyway, every time we think we’re doing okay, someone shows us we’re not. I was in love with coconuts (as a kid in Ft. Lauderdale, I attacked them with an ax on a fairly regular basis) and bought the oil for cooking, shampoos and cream rinses, and my favorite, coconut sugar. Then, I learned that all the beautiful palm trees are replacing natural ecosystems in some places, endangering species.
The solution is world wide birth control. That’s it.
Meanwhile, we do the best we can at home. My dishwasher is like a puzzle to solve daily. I manage to get cups, saucers, plates, etc. in such an order that it’s impressive! I recycle to the enth to find out Waste Pro does not (so I hear, but we’re still paying for it). I bought my first roll of non-plastic wrap, and have biodegradable garbage bags. I’ll drink my decaf coffee each morning and throw the grounds, and the filter, in the compost. I’ll try more meatless meals, as it’s better for us and I’ve been finding some really good recipes.
By the way, I love being a tree huger, but it’s harder than being careless. I guess most things right for us and the planet are.
Juan Valdez II says
I’ll quite drinking coffee when John Kerry stops using a jet to fly around the planet and tell people to stop climate change.
WORD UP !!!! The climate is going to change NO MATTER what humans do or don’t do now. Expect more severe hurricanes each year for the next 350 years until we go back into another ICE AGE. Move AWAY from the ocean and keep drinking coffee.
Now where did I set my coffee cup down ?
While I appreciate the intent of this article, I sympathize with [almost] all the comments listed. I would think almost everything each of us does contributes to climate change in some way or the other. If you check, I’ll bet the manufacture of clothing contributes more to climate change than coffee manufacture. Are we to give up wearing clothes for the sake of earth?!!
It’s been my experience that when working to solve a serious problem like climate change, you identify the highest contributing factors and work on them until you’ve sufficiently reduced them to where other factors not yet attacked are now contributing more to the problem. In a perfect world we’d address ALL the factors at once but that will not happen and typically leads to nothing getting done.
I’m suggesting that maybe we could lay off attacking the morning cup of coffee in the name of climate protection and keep our eye on the big contributors. Sometimes articles like this one just contribute to the wingnuts claiming “woke” people all need to be locked up! We can do better on the big hitters now and that would make good progress towards the ultimate goal here.
I wish we would all be more attentive to protecting the environment than spending time blaming Joe Biden for every problem in existence. By the way, the previous administration didn’t do much to help out the environment but I guess that was acceptable for the wingnuts……
I’m going to continue to enjoy my daily cup of coffee.
Jim: I agree with you. If we were to do anything to help with the environment (besides birth control) we should complain to the corporations. Even Whole Foods, which at least before Amazon bought it, touted all the things it did to protect the planet. Yet, they carry a whole lot of plastic containers! Lots and lots. Corporations will listen if we gang up, but we cannot be fooled by them again. After all, remember the commercial of the American Indian crying at the litter all around the ground? That was a corporate hype, and a manipulation aimed at the American public for plastic use, and it worked!
I’ve seen shows where people brought their own containers to stores, much like Aldi requesting reusable bags, to scoop their purchases in. I don’t see that anywhere around here.
Small changes will not help the big picture as long as there are climate deniers, and corporations who prefer profits over the planet, but I still want to do my part and the rest is on them. I don’t believe in an old man with a white beard in the sky, but if I’m wrong what if he asks me that he gave me Eden called “Earth” and how did I treat it?