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By Maggie McIntyre
If you’re anything like the average American, coffee is one of the first things on your mind when you wake up, but what are the ecological and ethical implications of your morning cup of joe? The coffee production industry is a long-time culprit of labor malpractice and resource depletion. However, coffee production remains a prominent part of world trade as coffee is one of the most popular drinks worldwide. About 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed daily around the world.
How Coffee is Grown
There are two main species of coffee grown in the world, including Arabica, which is mostly grown in Central and South America, and Robusta, which is primarily grown in Africa. Arabica makes up about 70% of coffee production in the world and is a shade-grown variety so it prefers a dense canopy of shade trees. In this environment, the shade trees resemble a native forest and provide a habitat for birds and other animals, and producers use less fertilizer and pesticides. However, growing coffee in the sun yields up to 5 times more product, so many coffee farmers have begun growing Arabica in the sun despite its preferences. The result has been mass deforestation to make room for the coffee plants and an increase in water consumption.
Coffee itself is a plant that takes a lot of water to grow. According to a study conducted by the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, it takes about 140 liters (37 gallons) of water on average to produce a standard 125 ml cup of coffee, which includes water used for irrigation, shipping and consumption. However, sun-grown coffee takes much more water than shade-grown coffee.
Coffee use, especially in America, is also responsible for massive amounts of waste. Most of this comes from coffee packaging and single-use coffee cups. About 16 billion single-use paper coffee cups are thrown out annually in the United States alone. Additionally, used coffee grounds get thrown out and can release harmful acidic oils and some toxic compounds. One way to cut back on coffee grounds waste is to compost it. Additionally, selecting whole bean coffee instead of pre-ground coffee cuts back on grounds waste in the preparation process—and preserves the quality of the coffee.
What to Look For
USDA Organic: If a coffee brand is organic, that means the farmer is not using pesticides which can contribute to unhealthy watersheds and ecosystems, and is actively working to stop erosion. 95% of the ingredients in a certified organic product must be sourced under the USDA standard which primarily focuses on ecological impact rather than social impact of production.
Rainforest Alliance Certified: The Rainforest Alliance Certification program includes best practices for protecting forests, responsible land management, promoting human rights of rural farmworkers and improving sustainable work opportunities for smallholder farmers and the surrounding communities.
Fair Trade Certified: Certified coffee producers receive a minimum Fair Trade price which covers the cost of production and tries to give some extra buffer for when prices drop. The Fair Trade Certified standards ensure good working conditions, fair compensation and sustainable environmental practices.
Bird-Friendly: This certification ensures a shade-grown coffee product and is developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. To receive the certification farmers must adhere to strict guidelines for the tree canopy over the coffee plants.
What to Avoid
- Plastic Packaging: Coffee that is sold in plastic packaging—especially coffee pods—should be avoided to reduce waste on the consumer side.
- Grown with pesticides: Non-organic coffee uses pesticides that can negatively impact workers and the surrounding communities as well as the environment.
To reduce the ecological impact of your coffee consumption, it is important to think beyond just the brand you buy. You can also think about purchasing a reusable coffee filter instead of using and throwing away paper ones. Avoiding instant coffees is also a good idea because they are generally made using low-quality beans from farms that are less likely to abide by good environmental and labor standards. And although buying coffee at a cafe can be a special treat, bring a reusable mug with you (if your local coffee shop allows it) to reduce single-use plastic waste. Coffee is a necessity for many of us and there are ways to consume it ethically. All it takes is a little planning and consideration.
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