There is nothing like a hot cup of coffee to start the day, especially on cold winter mornings. Aw heck, who am I kidding, every morning, no matter the season is a good day for coffee. Two-thirds of Americans drink over 100 billion cups of coffee annually. What are the effects of our daily java and what we can do to make changes and still enjoy our brew?
My first cup of Coffee
One of the first things I do when I wake up every morning is prepare myself a cup of coffee. I have been doing this since the first time I went to Japan nearly 4 decades ago. At that time, the only thing I knew about coffee was that my dad unceremoniously drank a cup of instant Sanka before he went to work each morning. As a young adult, it didn’t seem appealing until I stepped into a “real” coffee shop in Japan.
At that time (pre-Starbuck’s era) a ‘coffee shop’ in the US was a Denny’s or Bob’s Big Boy, where a bottomless cup was less than a dollar. Not so in Japan. A coffee shop, or Kissaten, was where you went to select, anticipate and observe the artistry of the process, followed by the celebration and worship of the delivery of one unique cup of coffee.
The small shops brewed each cup individually while the customers relaxed in comfortable seating, listened to jazz or classical music, and perused through the shop owners books and magazines. I remember watching the master of the shop thoughtfully and slowly swirl the hot water around my single serving of freshly ground beans. This production costed 5-10 times more for a cup then it’s Denny’s counterpart and without a refill. But the experience was well worth the cost.
What is the real cost?
As with every household product we use or food item we consume there is more than a financial cost. There are environmental and social costs to consider surrounding the growing and selecting of coffee.
Coffee was traditionally grown in shaded areas, typically intercropped with banana grasses to provide shade. This sustainable method helps support a diverse ecosystem where birds, plants and animal life flourish. This growing and harvesting process is slower for the farmers, however, the preservation of the land and sustaining biodiversity is vitally important.
Presently, the majority of coffee is now grown in monocultural, sun soaked, cleared land, much of which has become known as bird-less regions.This sun cultivation increases yield at first until the soil is depleted, leaving the land useless. Farmers most find new land to do the same process, creating more deforestation, in turn reducing the amount of tress that can capture carbon.
One of the biggest environmental challenge is the absurd amount of water needed for the growing of coffee been crops. A Dutch study estimated that 140 liters is needed to grow, process and prepare a single cup of coffee.
All these factors makes it hard to know what to buy. Labels can be confusing with so many certifications. Coffee certified as Fair-trade, Proudly made in Africa, Thrive or others guarantee fair pay and labor conditions to the farmers. Nearly half of Fair-trade certified coffee is also Organic certified. Shade-grown coffee helps guard against land degradation.
Guilty pleasures or mindful brewing
Once you have carefully chosen your coffee type, next comes brewing, consumption and disposing of the waste. Coffee culture in America has brought us Starbucks in hospitals, drive through coffee shops, and fancier and fancier machine that spit out a single serving of piping hot brew in seconds. How can we continue to enjoy coffee in a sustainable manner?
Kuerig machines have become an extremely popular household item and can be found in one in three American homes. The single-serving plastic K-cups produce 10 times the solid waste as a drip coffee maker. The amount of discarded K-cups in 2014 were enough to wrap around the earth 10 times! While the company has plans for recyclable K-cups by 2020, compostable and biodegradable paper filters are still gentler to the environment.
Regarding brewing, simple is best. The single pour over with reusable or biodegradable filters is as simple as it gets. The less energy used and waste produced, the better.
Coffee on the go
How about coffee on the go? Starbucks alone has 24,000 stores worldwide, with an average of 500 daily customers per store. That’s 12 million single-use cups trashed every day! Yes, many places now have recycling bins. However, most people leave Starbucks with their cups. In addition, recycled trash must be separated, transported to a recycling company, broken down, made into a new product, transported back to the consumer. Recycling must be our very last resort.
There are many mindful changes that can bring household coffee rituals in line with sustainable practices. First and foremost, use re-useable cups.
Coffee grounds can be used for making a roach trap, boosting nitrogen for your seedlings and compost for your garden. Recently, we saved our coffee grinds for our daughter, who made natural DIY face scrub to give as gifts for Christmas.
Recalling my first coffee experience in Japan, the careful, deliberate process forced me to slow down and appreciate the sights, sounds, texture, aroma and taste. Maybe slowing down and being conscious of what we drink, how it’s prepared, and how the waste will be disposed will enhance our coffee experience and reduce our waste and energy use as well.
This article was published in the Las Vegas Review Journal on December 23, 2017