Coffee and the Environment

Understanding the impact of coffee growing, roasting and consumption on the world around us is critical to the sustainable growth of the coffee industry.

The coffee industry from farm to table has an extraordinary impact on our environment, one which is much debated in and outside of the industry. Most recently the media have made much of the need to reduce waste products from coffee consumption, arguing for the removal of disposable cups and straws. Many notables in the industry have answered with some very well put arguments that outline the potentially crippling costs involved in a “silver bullet” law, while at the same time articulating the real desire to find a long term and sustainable solution. Sustainability is a concept that the coffee world understands rather well, the industry has quite some history in both making some spectacular mistakes, then in learning from them, and seeking to avoid them with the implementation of innovation and adaptation.

I have been around coffee and coffee shops a fair while, I have a pretty decent grasp of the history of the industry, and I have had the pleasure and privilege of engaging with some very dedicated members of the community over the years, many of whom I am lucky enough to consider friends. As a result I feel confident enough to add my own views to the growing weight of discussion. Instead of launching into a simple dissemination of my own opinion, I am going to look at some of the various areas of environmental impact individually and give some history, perhaps some perspective and my own views.

Fair Trade and Human Impact

Historically not coffees best aspect, the exploitation of developing nations is something that sadly came naturally with the growth of coffee consumption. I am not going to even try to cover the many and complex aspects of this issue, that’s really an article of its own, and one I will probably get to in the future. Rather I am going to summarize in saying that after a long, long time (too long) the coffee world is beginning to be filled with a growing number of people who are deeply committed to ensuring that the farmers and workers at the back end of the coffee journey are properly looked after. Direct and Fair Trade coffee is a huge step change in this and one to be properly encouraged and fully supported. This isn’t even remotely a debate in my opinion. Always ask about the trade history and sustainability of your coffee, do be prepared to choose coffee that has a conscience, and to pay a little more for it, the folks who are behind your drink deserve it.


Growing coffee is hard work, the coffee plant is particular about where it will grow well and the areas most suitable for its cultivation often also happen to be areas with exceptional biodiversity. This creates some challenges, in the mid to late 20th century coffee farming reached a point where it became common to clear cut land for cultivation, as growing coffee plants in direct sunlight produced higher crop yields which helped to meet the growing demands of the market. Of course it rapidly became apparent to some in the coffee world that this practice is very damaging, and nowadays you will find a good variety of “shade grown” coffees on the market. This farming method not only reduces impact but actually some research has shown that shade grown coffee farms provide some of the best environments for wildlife diversity, particularly in bird species, inside the coffee belt. Of course there is always a pay off and in this case it’s reduced crop yield and thus a higher required sale price to ensure fair pay for the farmers.

Water Contamination and Processing Waste Product

This is often overlooked but it can be the big one, processing a coffee harvest produces waste, in fact it produces a lot of waste, statistics show some really frightening numbers, up to 10,000m3 of contaminated water per ton of green coffee. The pulp from the coffee cherries, and the water used in wet processing are major issues, no one in the industry with any sense will tell you otherwise. Historically water pollution from coffee processing could be devastating to the local area, the sheer volume of waste causing a lot of damage. The increase in the use of natural or semi washed processing helps, using less water than full wet processing, but the battle is always to balance the final flavour of the product with the sustainability and environmentally friendly aspects of the process used to get that result. Each coffee bean responds better to different processes.

The impact of water contamination and the creation of wastewater is still significant and the debate on the best way to deal with it is ongoing within the industry. While progress has been made in finding methods to recycle water used in processing, and indeed in discovering that by doing so we can increase the effect of purification (interestingly it’s easier to treat a highly contaminated smaller volume of wastewater than it is to treat a larger less contaminated volume), the treatments aren’t cheap and so add to the cost of production.

Equally the dry waste from coffee harvesting (skin, pulp and the like from the cherries) is an issue, but one that can be mitigated through composting and careful management. In fact the waste can be used in some truly innovative ways, at least one company is manufacturing reusable coffee cups from the very waste product created by our industry. But this sort of thing takes time from the farmers and mills, it requires proper planning and management. Again therefore there is inevitably a cost increase that will need to be paid to make the changes economically viable.

Disposable Cups

Here we are at the major media storm of the moment, and I say that with all due respect, I really do. You have almost certainly come across some article or other on this subject over the last year. The statistics for waste produced by coffee shops are much touted around the media, with all sorts of implications of environmental damage and I am not going to decry the whole argument, because it is actually important. Really it is. But I am going to paraphrase George Canning in saying, you can prove anything with statistics, except the truth. Bear with me please.

Now I am not going to deny the need to reduce consumer waste, in fact I am outright inclined to champion it, not just in coffee but in the world in general. What I am going to say is that if you take a deeper look you will find that many of the coffee shops in your area are probably pretty passionate about sustainability already, often to a truly inspiring level. I know and have known folks working in coffee who are constantly looking at not only how to increase existing recycling on the premises but at how to use leftover grounds to compost, where to source genuinely environmentally friendly cups (harder than you might think as many areas still lack the facility to actually sort and recycle certain cup types) and ways to encourage people to purchase reusable coffee cups. But one more time we reach a financial issue, people need to be convinced that it’s worth the investment, and also that reusable cups are viable and convenient. If you are grabbing your morning coffee on the way to work, or your second coffee over lunch, you probably don’t feel you have time to wait for a barista to wash and dry your cup before you get your java, this is entirely valid and so ideas like having a back stock of reusable cups so that as long as you bring one with you, your coffee can be made quickly and served to you in another (ready to go) cup, are in the air. But this sort of thing takes time, effort and investment for the coffee shop and requires a “buy in” from the consumer to become effective.

In Summary or What’s your Point?

Ultimately my point is please take some time to think over your concerns, and to read up on them, the issues may not be quite as clear cut as you thought.

Mostly the overall hope is that this article may have added some perspective to your view of the coffee industry and its impact environmentally. Despite the occasional inference from mainstream media to the contrary, the coffee industry does have a history of spotting its issues and of pioneers who are willing to work out ways to overcome the problems. No matter where you look in global industry you will find eminently villafiable companies and individuals, that’s life. But if you look deep enough in the coffee world and if you are prepared to ask the questions that you have, you may find some surprising answers, and some inspiring individuals.

I am not suggesting for a moment that there isn’t work to be done, indeed a lot of work, but I am encouraging us all to consider the words coming from those inside the industry before getting behind sweeping but potentially ill considered or un-sustainable solutions. If we really want to make the changes count, we are going to have to play the long game, we owe that to ourselves and to that little third rock from the sun we call home.

About Bear Essentials CoffeeIf you have enjoyed this or any of my writing please check out my Homepage to find out more about me and my work. Follow the blog and if you feel you can, drop a donation to support this project. Thanks, – Bear

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