Most of us cannot do without our daily cup of coffee. It is the kick we need to leave our beds and keeps us going throughout the rest of the day. But research has some disconcerting news for us, our daily dose of caffeine might not be good for our planet’s health.
If we measure its weight for weight, the coffee produced even by the most sustainable methods produces carbon equal to cheese. And its carbon footprint is half of that of the worst offender of them all, beef. And adding a shot of milk to your daily cup brings with it its load of environmental baggage.
Some Facts About Coffee
Coffee intake covers almost 90% of our population. Its production and processing involve 25 million people worldwide. But all these efforts are without any additional nutritional value to the person who imbibes them. The only calories that get inside you are from the additives – whipped cream, sugar, chocolate sauce, and milk.
Along with the labor input, and carbon-intensive nature, it consumes an incredible volume of energy in the production process. And the process is a long one starting from the coffee farms to the café or your home. But it expends the most amount of energy surprisingly.
Coffee is never an everyday product found in the local market. It comes in from tropical farms and is shipped over great distances to the major markets of North America and Europe.
The whole process consumes tremendous amounts of valuable resources like water, manpower, land, and fertilizer. Add to that the multiple times it gets packed before it ends up in your cup. It starts with the wet green product on farms around the world. Next comes the dried green variety of coffee that goes to the mill. It is then again packed for shipping to various countries at the dock, before ending up finally at the roastery and then sold. Then we have the paperwork, communication, administrative add-ons, all these even before the ship leaves shore.
Even those amongst us who are deeply into eco-friendly products love our coffee. The aficionados shun mass-produced, or community coffee in much the same way we avoid processed foods, and go for coffee from local roasters, or buy stuff that comes exclusively in small batches. But does that make the product any more environmentally friendly? Let’s go through the whole process to get an idea of how the carbon adds up.
Coffee: From The Farms To The Cup
It would be safe to presume that the maximum energy is expended in the initial process of farming and processing, followed by the transportation and shipping part of it. While it is a reasonable assumption, as the farms usually are in remote areas far from the shipping ports.
The total carbon footprint created by a pound of coffee starting from the farms to the cup comes to 11 pounds of carbon dioxide.
But researchers in Costa Rica found that the farms and mills contribute only a quarter of the carbon footprint. The significant part of the process is manual, including planting, picking, and sorting. A small de-pulping machine does the work of removing the cherries.
They are then fermented without using water, in open tanks. They are even sold in big batches to cooperatives or collectives, which again saves when measured against individual shipment efforts.
Shipping also takes up much less space and effort as coffee beans are less susceptible to damage and can take up less space.
A study by sustainability expert Kim Elena Ionesco on the carbon footprints has led to an interesting find. While a pound of coffee gives out the carbon dioxide equivalent of 11 pounds, a break-up of its contribution over multiple processes gives us a startling result. A parallel study from Costa Rica has found that the farm-to-mill process contributes less than a quarter to the process. That includes both indirect and direct emissions.
The total carbon emission comes to 4 pounds before it leaves the country. That is 2 pounds as it is processed in the farms, another 1.25 pounds of CO2 at the mills, and add to that 0.75 pounds during the shipping process.
There is a fair amount of action in the roastery as it contributes a little to the carbon footprint. There has been an increase of direct buyers who add to the CO2 tally. Add to that the roasting process that usually runs on gas. Then comes the costs of running an organization. But the study by Ionesco found that a roastery contributes only 1.2 pounds to the total CO2 emissions for each pound of coffee.
And finally to the biggest culprit of them all. The final cup at the café adds over half of the total carbon emission. And there are multiple factors at play here. There are the air conditioners and the heaters that are working round the clock. Then there is the assortment of blenders, toasters, grinders, brewers that are directly linked to the coffee-making process.
Then come the dishwashers and the refrigerators. The laptops and phone charges at the front office add to the total. The espresso machines and the blenders are usually running round the clock from opening time till the shutters come down.
Then there is the huge cost of lighting, the wastage of water and perhaps we have explored the various environmental factors that go into the final process of coffee making.
While there might not be any significant changes possible in the process, a few of them might go a long way. Turning off machines overnight, some control over the grinding process, composting coffee wastes, the use of travel mugs instead of disposable cups, lesser use of napkins, all add up in the end. It sure does clear the fog of carbon-filled guilt that clouds our cup of favorite coffee.