Easy Sustainability Answers

How can I make my morning coffee more environmentally friendly? 5 tips.

Adriene Hill Aug 24, 2010

I love my morning coffee. Love love. I also love my mid-morning coffee. And my afternoon time coffee. I’m in good company. The US consumes more coffee than any country in the world (though Finland residents drink the most coffee per person).

The problem is, coffee, from the way it’s grown, to the way we brew it, to the way we drink it, isn’t great for the environment. It takes 37 gallons of water to produce once cup of joe, compared to 9 gallons for a cup of tea, according to the Water Footprint Network. So, if you’re less committed to your morning coffee than I am, and you’re worried about water use, you might want to consider a switch to tea.

But if you can’t imagine life without coffee, there are other ways to make it more environmentally tenable.

  1. Drink your coffee black. Milk requires a whole lot of resources. It takes 53 gallons of water to produce one glass of milk. It also creates significantly more carbon, according to the Guardian. “If you make a white tea, filter coffee or instant coffee, and you don’t overfill the kettle, then the milk will typically account for around two-thirds of the total [carbon] footprint – more than boiling the water and cultivating the tea or coffee put together. One reason for this counter-intuitively large contribution is that milk comes from cows, which, as ruminant animals, belch a lot of methane into the air.” And you have to keep that milk refrigerated.

  2. Buy coffee grown in environmentally friendly and socially responsible ways. Coffee labeled as “fair trade” is required to meet both social and environmental standards.

  3. Bring your own mug. And then use that mug over and over and over. It doesn’t help the environment if you keep buying a new tumbler every week to replace the one you left on the train…and the one you left at the coffee shop…and the one you left at your boyfriends apartment…

  4. If you buy your coffee beans at a coffee shop, see if they’ll let you bring your own container. Just make sure they weigh it first so you don’t end up paying more than you should.

  5. Consider a coffee maker with a thermos-like metal pot to keep your coffee warm without keeping the burner on. Avoid single-use non-recyclable pods. Slate has a great discussion about what brewing methods are best.

Do you have other tips? Please share!

UPDATE: A listener wrote in with a question about what to do with used coffee grounds; that answer is posted here.

Photo credit: Flickr user javaturtle.

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