Green Your Coffee Habit

Our guide to buying greener beans, brewing with less waste, and avoiding all that packaging.

Credit: Matthew Spaulding/Stocksy

This one is gonna hurt. Although the brew that 62 percent of Americans crave, savor, and downright rely on to perk up each morning has some amazing health upsides, it also comes with some complex environmental impacts. Unless you buy, make, and schlep your cup of joe with care, you could be hurting the planet. Here’s how to be a more mindful coffee consumer.

Buy “Green” Beans

Earth-friendly labels abound in the coffee aisle, but what do they all mean? Here’s a quick primer:

  • Fair trade coffee guarantees a minimum price for farmers, fair working conditions, and environmentally sound practices.
  • Organic means the coffee was grown without synthetic fertilizers but with methods that improve soil and water quality and conserve wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife.
  • Rainforest Alliance certification recognizes good waste management and soil conservation as well as fair wages.
  • “Shade grown” is not an official certification, but the designation signifies that the beans were grown under a canopy of other vegetation, which is good for the land and the local wildlife. (Bird lovers should look for the official Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird Friendly certification, which verifies the coffee is shade-grown as well as organic.)
Shade-grown coffee bushes
Credit: Jack Hebert/Flickr

However, simply looking for a label isn’t enough, says Teresa von Fuchs, director of sales and marketing for Genuine Origin Coffee Project, a coffee importer and exporter. “Coffee is not grown in a uniform way in different countries or even within the same country,” she says. “For instance, in Brazil, farmers’ land tends to be too big to qualify for Fair Trade certification.” Consumer Reports’ Eco-labels Center also cautions shoppers not to rely too heavily on these claims and seals. Rather, as Fuchs says, do your own research on your coffee purveyor of choice—and “make sure they prioritize the people and the environment.”

Brew Only What You’ll Drink

Once you’ve carefully chosen your beans, don’t waste them. If you’re drinking alone, consider an individual-cup French press, which saves not only coffee but also the electricity used by plug-in drip machines. If you’ve brewed more than you’ll drink, you could keep it in the fridge as future iced coffee or freeze it into coffee ice cubes. “If you pour coffee down the drain, you’re wasting not only that coffee but the energy and materials used to grow and transport it,” notes Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist for NRDC’s Food & Agriculture program.

You can also reuse, instead of toss, those spent coffee grounds. Gardeners may find them useful in nourishing their acid-loving plants and keeping certain pests away. In the kitchen, a handful of grounds sprinkled on a sponge makes for a handy degreasing tool.

Avoid Single-Cup Coffee Capsules

Although disposable coffee pods keep you from making too much coffee, the capsules themselves are hard to recycle and are piling up at alarming rates in our landfills. To help address this, Keurig recently started making its single-serve pods from polypropylene. Polypropylene is recycled in many communities, though not all, says Hoover. Still, you’ll need to first remove the pod’s paper lid and any plastic or aluminum that’s adhered to the lid, then dump out (or better yet, compost) the coffee grounds inside each pod before putting the plastic in your recycling bin. Capsules from other companies are similarly challenging. “Nespresso makes a capsule that is primarily aluminum,” says Hoover. “Aluminum is highly recyclable, but the pods are full of coffee grounds, which may limit their recyclability.” The size of coffee pods is also an issue at some recycling plants. “Even if the material is recyclable,” Hoover notes, “those small capsules may literally fall through the cracks.” So it’s important to check with your community to see if the pods are accepted in recycling programs where you live before tossing them into your bin. If you already own a single-serve brewing machine, you may be able to buy a reusable filter pod that you can fill with ground coffee and use in place of all those disposable containers.

Caffeinating On the Go? Mind the Cup

The delicious convenience of buying take-out coffee comes with a price: the waste associated with those cups. Paper cups and plates together accounted for close to 1.4 million tons of waste in the United States in 2014, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent statistics; Starbucks alone pegs its volume of paper cup use at around four billion per year. And those coffee cups are still nonrecyclable in most communities. “We think of them as being lined with wax, but most of them are actually lined with plastic,” says Hoover. That plastic can contaminate paper fibers during recycling, as can coffee residue. Still, progress is being made. Hoover explains, “More communities are starting to accept paper cups in recycling or compost bins, and more recycling facilities are developing ways to handle these materials.” The other common coffee vessel, the foam cup, also presents environmental issues. “Polystyrene foam is not recycled in most communities, and many cities have banned it for food service,” Hoover says.

You can skirt this entire issue by carrying a reusable cup. (At some coffee retailers, you’ll even be rewarded with a discount when you bring your own.) Even if you factor in the materials and resources required to make and maintain a reusable cup, it’s still easier on the planet than daily disposable cups.

Fight Climate Change

Coffee is a finicky crop. It grows only in the “bean belt,” a range of certain latitudes circling the globe; the belt includes java producers like Brazil, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Guatemala. The most common variety of bean, high-quality arabica, thrives below 73 degrees Fahrenheit. In that mild climate, beans ripen more slowly than they do in hotter places, and this delivers a richer, more complex brew. “Some studies say that the amount of land in areas suitable for growing the beans could be reduced by 50 percent by 2050,” says Carolina Herrera, Latin America advocate for NRDC. Warmer, wetter weather also increases the likelihood of coffee rust, a crop-destroying fungus that exploded in Latin and Central America between 2012 and 2014. “As the world gets warmer, not only will coffee crops be lost, but high-quality coffee will also be more difficult to produce,” Herrera says.

A fair trade coffee farmer in Uganda
Credit: Simon Rawles/Alamy

Climate change will also be devastating to the people who grow coffee beans. “Around the world, there are 25 million coffee farmers, and the industry supports 125 million people, including the farmers, their families, and their communities,” Herrera says. “Many of them work small-scale farms of less than 50 acres. Once there’s a loss in productivity, there’s a huge impact on communities that are already marginalized economically.”

So if you needed yet another reason to urge your local, state, and federal governments to cut carbon pollution, there you have it: Do it for coffee.

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