Fairtrade beans and plant-based milk makes your daily habit an eco cup of gold, right? Well, we look into how your method of preparation could actually be making the planet more than just a little bit despressod…
Like my curious.earth peers, before most acts of consumption, I stop in my vegan-Birkenstock made tracks and reflect upon the sustainability implications of my choices. Yet with a bit more time on my hands during lockdown, I decided upon a more proactive audit of my activities to ensure each was aligning to the curious ethos.
So I started at the beginning. Which is a very good place to start, but only once I’ve had my morning coffee. So here I am, frozen in my kitchen, various coffee paraphernalia smattered across the worktop, bleary-eyes trying to focus on how to accomplish the perfect balance of ritualistic satisfaction and environmental conservation.
We know that how coffee has been cultivated, and its impact on the ecosystems where it is grown is hugely important. But you may not realise that how you prepare your coffee at home can add 50% or more to its overall environmental footprint. So, chemical withdrawals twitching, I turn to the most instantaneous option:
Instant granules last the longest in their packaging – both in terms of serving size and shelf life, making bulk buying possible – a great solution to reducing packaging and journeys to make purchases. And, given that instant coffee normally comes in glass, which isn’t particularly energy-intensive to produce, it sounds like it’s winning! “Ahem, losing” says the caffeine monkey on my shoulder – who happens to be an insidious snob. Instant coffee might be a lovely deep green on the sustainability scale, but merely a dirty, rusty bronze medal, coming across the finish line of flavour. (though the child in me wants to score it a bonus point for the amazing satisfaction of popping the top seal of a new jar with a spoon)
Okay fine, what next?
Finely ground beans come in plastic/foil packaging which is barely recyclable. And, for quality control, bags are meant to be consumed soon after opening, making buying in bulk troublesome (though I challenge even my pretentious primate to discern that his pinky-lifted, bone-chinaed cup of joe is less than optimally fresh)
Paper filters score poorly as they’re unrecyclable once contaminated – compostable substitutes are better as they can be chucked out with food waste, but they do still require industrial composting processes. I’ve pretended to myself that this pacifies the planet, but really all I’ve been doing is turning down the volume, rather than pressing stop on a crying whale song track.
A stainless steel filter, aeropress, cafetiere or stovetop are excellent, and certainly don’t compromise on depth of flavour or chemical hit. (c 200mg caffeine a cup vs 120mg for instant). Deduct half a point for being a faff to clean, and don’t even get me started in trying to figure out how to account for the water consumption needed to do this.
Convenience, speed and flavour all have coffee monkey jumping and screeching for joy like the excitable ones you see stealing from tourists in Bali – but my eco-conscious conscience isn’t happy. As with filter, compostable and steel varieties have been made compatible – but I’m yet to make a cup which hits the same java-spot. Podback have made recycling the infinitely recyclable aluminium Nespresso pods far easier, but they’re only gradually expanding their geographical reach at present.
Yet, a crucial win for coffee pods is the optimisation of water useage. Unless you’re fastidious at filling your kettle to just the exact amount you need for instant or filtered, you’re likely removing any environmental benefit to using them in the first place.
So I’m left, barefoot in the kitchen, kettle boiling, milk frother whirring, nespresso light blinking – wasting more energy in my indecision than one cup could ever produce. And not to mention the frustration of my caffeine-starved husband, percolating down the stairs from his lockdown office, reducing coffee’s ritual-satisfaction down to nil. (I also heard that divorcing households are increasingly bad for the environment – so I ought to listen to his own coffee monkey’s cries more seriously…)
The War of the Milks is well documented – with this summary helping give a clearer picture to what has historically given me more of a headache than severe caffeine withdrawals.
So sod it, I’m heading out, but not before checking out Ethical Consumer’s assessment of the coffee shop chains – buzz monkey buzz.