Going Green: How to Get There!
By Joel Starr and Timothy J. Castle
The sad fact is that coffee roasters and retailers in consuming countries are responsible for most of the pollution coffee consumption produces. This inequity in business practices should be addressed and remedied by any café purporting to sell environmentally sound products. Is this easier said than done? Definitely. Is it even possible? Absolutely! We’ve compiled a list of recommendations from several sources starting with the most basic things you can do at your café to help lower your environmental impact.
Coffee at its essence
(as it has been described many times) is a caffeine delivery mechanism and a luxury beverage (when it is good). Although its health benefits have been increasingly lauded lately, coupled with the fact that coffee has no caloric or nutritional value. Coffee is largely consumed for pleasure and the physiological/psychological effects that its caffeine content delivers. Specialty coffee shops therefore cater to the luxury item market, providing not only the product which is directly purchased, the coffee, but also providing at least one single-serving cup, a heat-resistant sleeve, a plastic or wooden stir-stick, milk, sugar, other artificial sweeteners and of course, disposable napkins. This is a tremendous amount of material that accompanies the sale of an item that usually costs under $2.00. The sad fact is that coffee roasters and retailers in consuming countries are responsible for most of the pollution coffee consumption produces. This inequity in business practices should be addressed and remedied by any café purporting to sell environmentally sound products. Is this easier said than done? Definitely. Is it even possible? Absolutely!
(In the meantime it is only a matter of time before producers ask why roasters, too, don’t have to become certified and run their shops according to environmentally sound standards. So, roasters, ENLIST now, or get drafted later!)
We’ve compiled a list of recommendations from several sources starting with the most basic things you can do at your café to help lower your environmental impact. Recycling and keeping a close eye on paper consumption are the obvious first steps. After that, consider providing thermal sleeves or a second cup to your customers only upon request as some people’s hands are less sensitive to heat than others. If your lattes and cappuccinos are so hot that they always require a heat sleeve or a second cup, consider hiring a barista trainer as these drinks are most certainly burnt. About 155° F is hot enough for most milk drinks but Americano's should always be served with extra thermal insulation!
Why stop there when you can implement much more robust programs for conservation? George Bregar of Alterra Coffee Roasters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin told us, “All nine of our café’s electricity is obtained through We Energies (www.we-energies.com). By paying a premium on top of our electricity costs, we’re able to increase the productivity of renewable energy sources like bio-mass methane and wind powered turbines. We pay a 30% premium for our energy to support this cause. The idea is that as more companies do it, more energy can be produced this way.”
That may seem a bit extreme for your business, but Bregar has some other ideas in use at Alterra that might suit you better. “All of our cold cups are ‘Greenware’ [manufactured by Cargil-Dow]. They’re made from corn-based, polyacitide plastic that requires 20-50% less fossil fuels to produce than regular plastic cups and they do not produce toxic fumes when incinerated according to the manufacturer’s directions. Unfortunately we still have to serve hot drinks in paper cups because the corn plastics will melt under high temperatures.” Bregar continued, somewhat disappointed. It’s rumored that Cargil-Dow are working on an environmentally friendly hot cup, which is apparently more difficult to produce than cold nuclear fusion. [On a related note, International Paper has begun production on the “eco-tainer” hot cup, which is a regular hot cup with a polyacitide plastic lining instead of a petroleum based liner- a step in the right direction] Lastly, Alterra makes sure their coffee waste makes its way straight back to the eco-system through vermicompost. Vermicomposting is the process whereby earthworms eat mulch and turn it into a nutrient rich, organic fertilizer. Vermicomposting is commonly practiced on organic farms but the worms love to eat coffee mulch at all stages, even after the flavor and caffeine have been extracted. Bregar informed us that, “We’ve donated our spent grounds for years now to Growing Power and the Urban Ecology Center where they use it in their vermicompost. We have five gallon pails where we put the spent coffee grounds from all our coffee stations and even in our cupping room”. If you don’t have a community ecology center in your city, consider donating your spent grounds and waste coffee to your local community garden. Failing that, add them to a flowerbed nearby. Coffee can continue to give once it has served our purposes!
The process of decaffeinating coffee is energy-intensive and a potential source of negative environmental and climactic impacts. Most decaffeinators are aware of these risks and are careful to minimize their impact on the environment, including the containment of any hazardous chemicals in processes where toxic chemicals are in use. At present, there is no certification that assures the roaster that the decaffeinated coffee they're using was processed in an environmentally responsible way so diligent roasters need take a close look as to how their decaffeinated coffees are processed.
Frank Dennis, CEO of Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Co., Inc. in Vancouver, British Columbia told us. “One of the principle tenets of our company as we go forward is our dedication to environmentally sound practices. First and foremost, our process in and of itself is 100% chemical free. This serves the environment in many ways, first, because we’re not starting out with chemicals we need to worry about, we have fewer problems to manage throughout the process, and less chance that we’ll be leaking anything harmful into the environment. In addition, and this is key, our employees don’t have to worry about exposure to the solvents we’re adding to the process, because the “solvent” we’re adding is water. Furthermore, we've found that, by its nature, our 100% chemical-free process produces the best tasting coffee when we manage, through better measurement technology and systems controls, our coffee solids to water ratio as much as possible. This in turn, allows us to adjust our water use significantly downward, and we’ve regularly done that since our plant here in Canada was opened almost 20 years ago. It's a win-win really, we’ve been able to show that the practices that are less disruptive to the environment are also the least disruptive to the flavor of the coffees we decaffeinate.”
Dennis continued, “We also have a robust employee recycling program which further helps to reduce our waste and our total carbon footprint as an organization. As an industry, the members of the specialty coffee trade are taking a proactive position with regard to environmental issues and we at SWDCC intend to play a vital role in this initiative.”
SCAA Vs. Carbon Emissions
How much carbon emissions do you produce each year when you travel to the SCAA show? This year the SCAA addressed that very issue by instituting a carbon-offset program aimed at undoing some of the environmental damage done by the necessary jet and car travel used for its annual convention. At their online sign-up sheet, members could voluntarily calculate and make a donation to Trees For The Future to offset their carbon emissions by planting trees in coffee growing countries. Your business can participate in similar carbon offsets by visiting www.plant-trees.org.
While we haven’t seen any data to confirm this, we suspect that coffee production, in and of itself, may be a net reducer of CO2 in the atmosphere. The wood, cherry pulp, parchment and shade trees, after all, are all generated from CO2 that is consumed in the process of photosynthesis. Even when you take into account the roasting, it is possible that, if the spent grounds are composted and not incinerated that the whole coffee consumption cycle represents a net reduction in atmospheric CO2! That is, UNTIL you consider all the other factors, packaging, paper cups, etc. The good news, though, is that if we can just fix the issues revolving around packaging, we’ll have a pretty darn green product to sell.
These suggestions are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reducing your coffee business’s waste and by-products. There is a lot that the enterprising entrepreneur can do to reduce waste, save money and help the environment. Hopefully by doing so, we can reduce some of the ironic circumstances of our chosen profession!
Tea & Coffee - November, 2007
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