The Environmental Footprint of a Cup of Coffee

coffee cup

An average of 400 million cups of coffee are consumed in America every day – more than any other country. The environmental impact of our caffeine consumption depends on a variety of factors, some of which may surprise you.

Country of Origin

The vast majority of coffee is grown overseas, so buying locally-grown coffee is next to impossible in the U.S. The good news is the distance that coffee beans travel is considered a minimal factor when assessing the overall environmental footprint of a cup of coffee. Certain countries, however, may use better agricultural practices, and coffee labeled as Fair Trade comes with a set of ethical guidelines that includes protecting the environment.

Packaging

Take a walk down the coffee aisle at your grocery store and you will see many varieties of packaging. There are steel cans, plastic containers, flexible foil pouches and coffee capsules – and don’t forget about the bulk section. Is one better than the other? Well, steel cans and plastic containers can be recycled, while coffee capsules and flexible foil bags can not, which gives them a larger packaging footprint. However, the best option is to skip the package altogether and utilize a reusable container to buy coffee in bulk. You may even find you can pay less for your favorite coffee by purchasing it in bulk. That’s a win-win!

Reusable vs. Single-Use Cups

What about the debate over reusable cups versus single-use (“disposable”) cups? Studies have found that reusable cups almost always have a lower environmental impact, especially when washed using an energy-efficient dishwasher or in cold water.

Milk

The biggest factor when determining the environmental footprint of your coffee: the milk. Espresso shots have a much smaller footprint than a beverage that contains milk or cream, such as a latte. This is due to the energy and water used in production of milk (both dairy and non-dairy), the additional packaging, and the energy used to heat the milk up at the brewing stage.

Take-Away Tips:

    1. Look for and support coffee that has a Fair Trade label.
    2. Enjoy your drink in a reusable mug.
    3. Turn off “keep warm” functions on drip coffee machines.
    4. Make only as much as you need – say no to food waste!
    5. Toss the coffee grounds in your home compost or garbage.