Carbon cafe: what is the most sustainable coffee order?

From the beans to the milk to the way it’s brewed, the environmental impact of your daily pick-me-up can vary widely

If you stroll through any Australian city during morning rush hour, you’ll find the sidewalks teeming with people inhaling the savoury, bittersweet aromas of their early morning coffee, zinging to life as the caffeine hits their circulation. In fact, Australians drink more than 16m coffees every day, supporting a $10bn industry in this country alone.

But while the caffeine hit is relatively short-lived, the environmental impacts linger.

First, there’s the glaring issue of the 2.7m non-biodegradable coffee cups, lids and pods that end up in landfill every day. But behind the scenes, coffee sustainability needs to be addressed at every stage of its life cycle.

The beans

The biggest consideration in any coffee purchase – whether it’s at home or at a cafe – is how the beans are grown. “Coffee cultivation covers a broader range of cultivation methods and, hence level of environmental impact, than almost any other crop in the world,” says sustainability expert Aaron Gove from Astron Environmental Services in Perth.

Traditional methods that use shaded plantations and waterway buffering to cultivate coffee beans have the gentlest footprint and foster rich ecological biodiversity. At the other end of the spectrum, monocrops grown in sunlight to increase yield result in deforestation, reduced biodiversity and use of diesel-guzzling machinery, fertilisers and pesticides.

Gove therefore recommends looking for eco-friendly labels as certification programs have proven successful in promoting shade coffee plantations and forest conservation. Two key labels are Australian Certified Organic and Rainforest Alliance. However the latter’s standards have become less strict, and the best guarantee of sustainable coffee is now the Bird Friendly certification. Unfortunately this classification is not used in Australia, but some suppliers, such as BunCoffee and Cafe Britt, do source “shade-grown” beans, not certified bird friendly, but at least you know the tree habitats aren’t destroyed.

Workers de pulp organic coffee in Ejido San Luis. This coffee is shade grown in the Lacandon rainforest.
Workers de pulp organic coffee in in Mexico. This coffee is shade-grown in the Lacandon rainforest. Photograph: Danita Delimont/Alamy

Fair trade – ensuring that growers aren’t exploited – is a related consideration. Although not guaranteed, Gove says it’s reasonable to presume that fair trade coffee is grown by small communities and therefore sustainably. Bringing it together, the Australian Organic and Natural Directory provides a list of organic coffee brands with their various certifications.

It should be noted that other crops could be sustainably cultivated but the growers can’t afford certification – so coffee addicts keen to know more might need to dig deeper into their favourite brand’s roots.

Gove’s personal favourite, Jasper Coffee in Melbourne, showcases its coffee farmers (close to home in Papua New Guinea) and the coffee beans’ level of certification. It also includes an icon for shade-grown beans. You can also look up many coffee brands on the Ethical Consumer Group’s website.

Ordering at a cafe

If you like your beans handled by an expert barista, it’s a bit trickier to decipher your coffee’s environmental footprint. “By the time it actually gets to serving a flat white,” says Gove, “there doesn’t seem to be as much emphasis on where the beans are from or how they are cultivated. We either like the cafe and its coffee or we don’t. In Perth, for instance, it’s rare to see a cup of coffee promoted as organic or shade-grown.”

Not-for-profit website Responsible Cafes has a directory of more than 4,700 Australian cafes which offer discounts for BYO cups and engage in other sustainable practices such as composting and using renewable energy.

So, with all those billions of cups of coffee, what about the milk that comes with cappuccinos, lattes and flat whites? Next to meat, dairy production has one of the biggest environmental footprints through land-clearing, waterway contamination and methane production. There’s certainly no shortage of creative milk substitutes available, derived from almonds, rice, coconuts, oats, soy, pea protein and even hemp.

These milk alternatives do have some environmental impacts to consider; in particular, rice and almonds need a lot of water – an increasingly precious resource – and large swaths of the Amazon rainforest are being destroyed to grow soybeans. On the whole, all milk substitutes have a much lower carbon footprint than dairy milk, although it also depends how far they’ve been transported before they reach the coffee machine.

Hemp milk gets the biggest tick from sustainability consultancy firm Eco-Age, as it needs very little water and grows naturally without herbicides and pesticides. As well as being highly nutritious, hemp is high-yielding, returns nutrients to the soil and sequesters carbon dioxide, so if your local cafe has it, it could be worth trying. Or you could eliminate the need for milk entirely by choosing a long black.

Making coffee at home

When considering the impact of the beans themselves, coffee pods – contrary to popular belief – are not the worst environmental offenders when it comes to home brewing. It’s counterintuitive, but they’re the lesser of several evils when the bigger picture is considered.

It’s to do with mathematics – one pod gives a precise measure and the water is flash-heated, while other brewing methods tend to use and waste more coffee beans per cup, generating more energy to heat it, land and water to grow the beans, carbon dioxide emitted during their transport and methane produced by coffee grinds that end up in landfill. Multiply such small differences by billions of cups each year and it adds up to a hefty carbon footprint.

If the pods are made from recyclable aluminium, they may be more ecofriendly than other capsules, even those made with compostable materials, according to research by Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, a coffee shop owner who joined forces with researchers. The tricky bit is how they’re disposed of. Because they include non-biodegradable components and are too small for recycling facilities to process, pods need to go to a dedicated outlet. Planet Ark therefore recommends using brands that have a recycling program for used capsules. Nespresso has one, for instance, and provides more than 19,000 collection points throughout Australia.

Finally, Gove suggests, to savour coffee that leaves you with a warm glow from the knowledge that it’s fair and sustainable, consider paying just a bit more.


Natalie Parletta

The GuardianTramp

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