environmental impact of coffee

When Will We Consider the Environmental Impact of Coffee Production?

Jane Marsh - October 10, 2019

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Many people enjoy a nice cup of coffee to start their day, but do you think about where it comes from? For environmentalists, this is an essential question that requires detailed answers. Coffee is a popular drink in the U.S. and around the world, but its production methods leave much to be desired. The environmental impact of coffee extends to humans, animals and plants. Its creation can lead to the destruction of valuable resources and wildlife habitats — whether intentional or unintentional. 

Environmental Effects

According to experts, coffee grown in the shade comes with a plethora of benefits. It’s great for wildlife, promotes pollination, produces cleaner air and much more. In the late 1990s, coffee production ramped up due to increased consumer demand. Today, most producers grow directly in the sun for faster photosynthesis.

The practice isn’t without consequence — farmers now use more pesticides and fertilizers to replace the effects of insect-killing animals and natural organic matter. Some chop down trees to create full-sun farms, which destroys delicate ecosystems and leaves native animals without a home.

Sun-grown coffee has turned into a mono-crop, meaning it’s often the only plant grown in a single area. This lack of biodiversity breeds pests and disease and reduces the number of nutrients in the soil. Over time, mono-cropping coffee can lead to less yield and poor growth. As the coffee industry expands, so does the destruction of nutrient-rich soil and ecosystems.

The coffee itself isn’t the only factor to contend with. Milk and dairy creamer come from cows, animals that add a hefty amount of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The agricultural sector is the biggest producer of methane in the U.S. due to livestock and manure.

Scientists expect climate change will reduce rainfall in coffee regions, affecting growth and increasing rate of disease. The survival and reproduction of plant pathogens depend on temperature and humidity. If global climates reach a point favorable to their spread, coffee plants will become more vulnerable to death by disease.

Ethics and Sourcing

Many coffee farmers only earn 10% of the retail price on coffee — not enough for anyone to survive on. Because coffee production is so multilayered, it’s difficult to know whether farmers are receiving adequate compensation for their work. Likewise, many growers have no clue where their beans go or how much companies sell them for. Much of the process occurs in locations outside the source, meaning workers see few of the benefits.

Coffee growers must pay steep taxes and production costs. For small farmers, these expenses mean they lose more than they make. One study revealed that out of various coffee-producing countries — such as Kenya, India and Rwanda — only Indonesian farmers consistently earn a high enough wage to live on. Indian and Vietnamese farmers also earn a living wage. However, this doesn’t account for money from trades other than coffee production.

The cost of a single pound of coffee is currently $1 as of 2019. Production costs for many farmers equal $1.20 per pound, meaning they take a significant loss when selling their beans. When they lack the money to support themselves, they also require funds to upgrade equipment or invest in their trade. It’s not uncommon for agriculturists to leave the business when they become unable to maintain their farms.

You may be reconsidering your love for coffee, and it can be challenging to give it up — especially if everyone around you resists the green movement. How can you feel inspired when no else seems to care? Fortunately, you don’t have to pour it down the drain. Making your coffee consumption eco-friendly and ethical is a doable process.

Sustainable Ways to Consume Coffee

Though changing the system at an industry level will take time, you have options as a consumer for switching up the way you consume your favorite brew.

One environmental impact of coffee production is the waste generated by single-use cups. Go green by using reusable cups instead of disposable ones. Though many disposable cups claim to be recyclable, they contain a waterproofing agent called polyethylene, which makes it difficult to break down. As a result, these cups sit in landfills like many other waste products.

One up-and-coming Australian company called Ecoffee is marketing reusable cups made from bamboo fiber, cornstarch and resin. Their goal is to encourage people to choose more eco-friendly products over single-use ones.

Donate used coffee grounds to facilities who reuse them for other purposes, and choose plant-based milk instead of heavy creamer. Reuse your grounds to make body scrub or plant fertilizer. You can also use them to deodorize nasty smells. Does your fridge smell funky? After your morning brew, place a bowl of used grounds inside.

Ethical and Sustainable Coffee Consumption

The environmental impact of coffee production is undeniable. As a consumer, you can make informed decisions about the brands you support. Do your part to buy from certified brands and encourage local grocers to think green. Push your favorite companies to ensure ethical and sustainable production. Coffee is great, but it tastes better when you know it’s crafted with care.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.