hand holding a steaming mug of coffee

The Environmental Impact of Your Caffeine Habit

Week 34

Every morning, I kick off the day with a warm cup of coffee or tea. While I'm not a "don't talk to me until I've had my caffeine" enthusiast, I look forward to and enjoy every sip. Since 63% of American adults drink coffee on a daily basis, and tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world (after water), I'm clearly not alone. Unfortunately, there are some negative impacts attributed to this seemingly harmless habit. So, grab a cuppa, and settle in. We've got a lot to discuss.

What are the environmental problems caused by coffee and tea?

Disposable Cups

We tackled disposable cups in Week 7 of our Tiny Waste Resolution, but here's a quick reminder of why they are harmful for the environment:

The US alone throws away about 58 billion paper coffee cups every year. Paper cups seem harmless, until you realize that they are lined in plastic, thus making their mixed materials impossible to recycle or compost. According to an article from The Guardian, a typical paper coffee cup requires 2.5 litres to make the plastic lid, as well as 5.6 litres for the paper cup and sleeve. In addition, an estimated 9.4 million trees are harvested annually, just for cups. And, wait for it...every four paper cups are responsible for one pound of CO2.

Coffee Production

We rarely think about where our coffee comes from, but the truth is, the production process is pretty intense. Let's take a quick look at what's required. First, the seeds are planted and after 2-3 years, become fruit-bearing trees. Once the fruit, similar to cherries, is ripe, they are picked, separated from the pulp, and dried. After the beans are dried, they go through another process to remove any leftover skin and pulp. Then, they are shipped as "green beans" and at their final destination, they are roasted, ground, and brewed.

As you can probably guess, production alone requires a significant amount of both energy and water. According to one UNESCO study, about 140 L of water are required for one cup of coffee.

There's also an issue of shade-grown vs sun-grown. Shade-grown beans grow under the canopy of other trees and work with neighboring symbiotic plants. Sun-grown beans, on the other hand, require full sun and often, deforestation, which upsets the natural biodiversity and ruins the soil. And according to World Wildlife Fund, "Deforestation and forest degradation are responsible for around 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions."

Tea Production

Let's take a look at what is required to make tea. First, the leaves are plucked, usually by hand, and laid out to wilt and wither. Then, the leaves are rolled and twisted to squeeze out the juices. Next up, the leaves are set to rest for several hours, where oxygen interacts with the now exposed enzymes in the leaves. Finally, the leaves are heated until dried.

The tea production process offers similar concerns to coffee, although it seems to be on a much smaller scale. For instance, water footprint is only 30 liters per cup.

Coffee Filters

Coffee Filters are made of paper and come in either bleached (white) or unbleached (brown). While I can't find any hard numbers about the number of trees or amount of water needed to produce either, I have found that bleached filters require additional processing, making unbleached the more environmentally-friendly option. Of course, reusable is even better.

Tea Bags

If you haven't already heard, I am so sorry to break this news to you... most tea bags are made using polypropylene , a non-biodegradable plastic polymer. Watch this horrifying clip from BBC News that shows researches exposing plastic tea bags from multiple brands.

Plastic Packaging

Most coffee and tea products are sold with some form of plastic packaging, whether it be a plastic tub, plastic bag, or cardboard box wrapped in plastic. All plastics are made from crude oil, a non-renewable resource, which is harmful for two reasons: manufacturing generates significant pollution and the product is not biodegradable. As Sciencing.com put it, "they are difficult to produce and nearly impossible to get rid of once produced". Instead of biodegrading, plastic breaks down into tiny micro-plastics that litter our soil, our waterways, and even our air.

How can I make my coffee and tea consumption more sustainable?

I don't think many of us are looking to completely remove coffee and tea from our lives, but we can make a few choices that are better for the environment:

10 Low Waste Options for Your Caffeine Fix →