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A Change Can Change Everything

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word iniquitous means grossly unjust or unrighteous; wicked. This term perfectly encapsulates the overall actions of the representatives of the Coffee Industry, and it’s unfortunate consequences dispersed amongst our dwindling environment. 

What is coffee to you? How does coffee impact your life? Most people would answer both of those questions by saying coffee is that drink to wake you up in the morning before work/school, and that’s where the impact really stops. The average coffee drinker has no concept of where the coffee comes from, or how it’s grown. This ignorance needs to be stopped for the sake of the future of our environment. Every aspect of the coffee industry, from growing to before and after consumption, hurts the environment in some way. In an article called, “Coffee – The Environmental Impact of our Caffeine Addiction,” the author, Jennifer Okafor, starts off by saying “Our consumption of coffee is global and so is it’s environmental impact. Our coffee drinking habit has consequences for the climate, biodiversity, and the financial well-being of farmers. Since most coffee-growing regions are areas with delicate ecosystems the impact on the environment can prove both concerning and significant.” This quote perfectly scratches the surface of how much influence the coffee industry has on the environment and on the consumer. The consumer blindly endorses this behavior by purchasing the product. Not only is the manufacturer at fault, but the uneducated consumer is as well. 

The practices of the cultivation of coffee has changed drastically throughout the years. The traditional shade grown method was preferred for being environmentally friendly but over the years a different method has been adopted to keep up with the growing demand. There are two types of coffee plants; arabica and robusta. Arabica plants favor more shaded environments for better quality beans. Robusta plants are typically grown in direct sunlight thus creating a lesser quality bean. Okafor continues to explain that, “The demand for inexpensive coffee has positively encouraged farmers to embrace the practice of growing coffee directly under the sun. The yield from coffee fields without tree canopies is much higher than that of shaded farms and, as a result, is cheaper.” This favoring towards the sun grown method has put a damper on the environment in the area called the “bean belt.” The bean belt consists of South America, Asia, Africa, Middle East, and others including Australia, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Jamaica. In an article by Adams + Russell, they speak about why the bean belt got its name, “The Bean Belt is the name given to the collection of countries across the globe that produce most of the coffee that we drink each and every day. These countries are mainly in the southern hemisphere and all lie between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.” The loss of natural habitats is one of the main environmental consequences of the coffee industry’s misconduct. From Okafor’s article, “Coffee – The Environmental Impact of our Caffeine Addiction,” she presents statistics on deforestation and biodiversity, “The spread of coffee plantations has resulted in critical deforestation, putting certain plants and animals in danger. Out of the 50 countries globally with the highest deforestation rates, 37 are major coffee-growing regions. Out of the 25 biodiversity hotspots, 13 areas with delicate ecosystems are coffee-producing regions.” These statistics come from an article written by Kristina Sorby called, “Environmental benefits of sustainable coffee.” Sorby adds more informative statistics by saying, “Of the 11.8 million hectares used for coffee production around the world in 2001, only 2.3 million hectares are not planted in areas of former or current rainforest.” This statistic is troubling considering the massive amount of deforestation in rainforests worldwide. 

Following the cultivation process, the next step would be to turn the coffee beans into grounds. In an article by Ian Fletcher called, “An Effective Approach For the Management of Waste Coffee Grounds,” he speaks about the pollution during and after the processing of coffee ground, “Over a 6 month period in 1988, it was estimated that processing 547,000 tons of coffee in Central America generated as much as 1.1 million tons of pulp and polluted 110,000 cubic meters of water each day. This excess waste can also play havoc with soil and water sources as coffee pulp is often dumped into streams, severely degrading fragile ecosystems.” This process only accounts for about 4% of the coffee industry’s environmental impact, according to the article, “Unique Research Revealed that Significant Amounts of Coffee Goes to Waste,” written by Lea Rankinen. She continues to share that the largest impact the coffee industry is involved with is the cultivation of coffee at 68%. Following the theme of pollution through soil and water, the cultivation of coffee under direct sunlight provides more environmental difficulties. The vulnerability of the coffee plants to pests forces the farmers to use pesticides to certify a healthy harvest. The use of pesticides causes the air and ground water to be polluted causing contamination in the soil and water supply. Okafor explains that the organic waste from coffee production causes “significant river pollution. The discharged waste from the coffee processing plants into the waterways triggers the eutrophication of water systems and robs aquatic plants and animals of oxygen.” The amount of intentional or unintentional environmental impacts of the coffee industry have proven to negatively determine the future of the climate. 

The waste of the consumer accounts for a huge portion of the environmental impact. Rankinen shares a statistic about coffee waste by saying that, “It turned out that coffee is the third biggest category in total food waste, only vegetables and fruit products are thrown away more. An average Finn wastes some 2.5 liters of coffee drink annually. Differences between households were significant: the 16% of households that generate the most food waste poured away approximately 13 liters of coffee per person annually.” As well as the massive amount of liquid waste, the amount of waste from disposable cups, filters, and coffee pods generate a large amount of excess waste. This waste causes an extensive carbon footprint, thus contributing to climate change. There’s a lot of things you can do to help the environment and decrease your carbon footprint, but you must first learn where to look. Your selection of coffee and cup would’ve never been your first thought, but I hope now it might be. 

Choosing the perfect coffee brand may not seem like an important task for you. Your local supermarket may have a sale on a well-known brand, and that’s how you make your decision. You may see an enticing commercial on TV, that gets your mouth watering for a hot cup of joe. This mindless decision to pick the best coffee brand is something that many Americans deal with daily. Little do they know that their decision, although seemingly unimportant, will endorse unforseen toxic behavior carried out by the manufacturer if the wrong purchase is made by the consumer.

Undoubtedly, the irresponsible consumer claims they hold no responsibility, asserting that the industry leading coffee brands themselves are most accountable for the environmental detriment. Although this may be partly true, the line between manufacturer and consumer is seemingly slim because of their coinciding negative influence on the environment. The overall impact is too large on each side to not consider a substantial change to each of their practices. This change may be costly, mainly for the manufacturer, but it must be done to maintain a sustainable planet for future generations.

The first step of change must begin at the very start, planting and harvesting. Although most environmentally compliant coffee companies plant and harvest under shaded areas, the largest coffee companies are met with the dilemma of a safe environment or cost efficiency. Almost all of the time they choose the latter. The option of a safe environment refers to the choice to grow the coffee beans naturally under shaded beds of trees. The more favorable and cost efficient method is to cause massive deforestation in areas along the “Bean Belt.” Familiar brands such as: Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Keurig and Maxwell House all share similar qualities, but their environmental compliance needs to be put into check. 

In 2020, Starbucks has committed to a more environmentally friendly future as the multi-national company celebrates 50 years since it’s creation. Although this may be great for it’s investment profile, their actions still leave much to be desired. Being one of the industry leading coffee companies, it’s assumed that their environmental impact would be massive. That assumption would be correct. Their wasteful practices were at an all time high throughout the 2000’s. Their biggest impact comes in the form of cups. Their increasing issue with disposable cups has led to the company being heavily criticized by environmental groups. Starbucks has recently pledged to lessen the impact by introducing recyclable cups and reusable mugs. Although this may be great, their environmental impact is felt through many other mediums. Energy consumption and water waste are two major contributing factors to their water footprint and most importantly, greenhouse gas emissions. Illustrated in an educational essay written by Ivy Panda called “Starbucks Company’s Environmental Impacts,” “Starbucks uses dipper wells to wash coffee and utensils. The company also uses a lot of water to prepare its beverages. That being the case, water usage has remained another critical concern for Starbucks Coffee. Statistics show that Starbucks wastes over 6.2 million gallons of water every single day.” Their water consumption not only affects the environment, but also the water sources of communities that are being exploited. Their waste management techniques use large amounts of energy, thus contributing to excessive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Another massive industry leading coffee company is Dunkin’ Donuts. Their overall contribution to environmental decay was previously felt through their widespread use of styrofoam cups. These styrofoam cups were a massive issue until they introduced a plan to eliminate styrofoam, and replace it with a recyclable paper cup. In 2018 Dunkin’, “announced plans to eliminate all polystyrene foam cups in its global supply chain beginning in spring 2018 with a targeted completion date of 2020. Dunkin’ U.S. has replaced the foam cup with a new, double-walled paper cup. Dunkin’ completed this transition in early-May 2020. The elimination of foam is expected to remove approximately 1 billion foam cups from the waste stream annually.” This information can be found in an informational article posted by the company themselves titled “Dunkin’ Sustainability Fact Sheet.” Both Starbucks and Dunkin’ have complied with growing concerns and improved their environmental sustainability to improve the future of both companies. With these changes being implemented within the past 2 years, environmental groups await further statistics to confirm their compliance. 

While Starbucks and Dunkin’ are mainly available in their countless coffee shops, Keurig and Maxwell House bring coffee to your kitchen each morning. Keurig and Maxwell House rely on the consumer to purchase their wide range of coffee pod products. Keurig being the lead manufacturer of which, selling approximately 30 billion K-Cups yearly. While Maxwell House is the smaller manufacturer, they hold a larger stake on their plans of fully compostable and recyclable pods compared to Keurig. Detailed in an article posted by Waste 360 titled, “Kraft Heinz Releases Maxwell House Compostable Coffee Pods in Canada,” the Head of Sustainability at Kraft Heinz, Nicole Fischer, details how they “recognize the significant concern packaging waste presents and we are working collectively at all levels of our operations to explore alternative solutions. Through ongoing collaboration with packaging experts, organizations and coalitions, Kraft Heinz Canada is working towards a circular economy to ensure real measures are taken to reduce single-use plastics and divert food waste from our landfills, limiting harmful impacts to our environment.” This goal will be hopefully achieved by 2025 as a part of Kraft Heinz’s aim to obtain a fully sustainable, fully recyclable product. Little can be said on Keurig’s part though. Feeling the pressure of creating a sustainable product, Keurig “announced that by the end of 2020, they will create a recyclable K-Cup pod made out of plastic #5 known as polypropylene plastic. You peel off the foil lid, compost or chuck the grounds and recycle the cup,” as detailed in an article called “The curious, environmental case of the Keurig K-Cups (or what to do with them),” written by Steve Scauzillo. Although this may be great for Keurig’s image, the “recyclable” K-Cup may not be completely recyclable. Scazillo continues by explaining that “only one-third of major recycling programs accept this kind of plastic. Also, just because a recycling facility accepts it, that doesn’t mean it gets recycled. That’s because this is a low value plastic. It cannot be made into another cup, unlike polyethylene terephthalate, commonly known as PET plastic, used in soda bottles that can be recycled into other plastic bottles.” This is bad news for the overall sustainability of Keurig’s newly implemented product. Both Maxwell House and Keurig have implemented new ways to transform their product for a more sustainable future, but their pasts may cast a dark shadow on the future of the environment. In Scauzillo’s article he detailed a particular study called The Story of Stuff Project held by a Berkeley environmental nonprofit. This study estimates that “the amount of K-Cups in landfills could wrap around the planet 10 times.” Is it too late to fix what’s already been done?

On a different side of the spectrum, the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade Certification are fighting to transform how we farm coffee beans from the very start. These extremely important improvements will refine how coffee is grown and harvested, while hopefully setting the standard for how changes should be made for the industry as a whole.

Although there has been a recent surge in deforestation directly associated with the growing/harvesting of coffee beans, the Fairtrade Certification, and more importantly the Rainforest Alliance, are willing to fight for the betterment of the world. The Rainforest Alliance standards are meant to protect the environment in the aspects of growing and harvesting. The Fairtrade Certification offers support to farmers and workers who are directly funded by the consumer. These two corporations offer the consumer plenty of environmentally friendly coffee brand alternatives to help the world in its quest for a better present and future.

The formula for a better environment must start with the production of coffee, or the more important efforts will fall short as well. Coffee may do a lot for our lives, but if the consumer fails to help the efforts in conjunction with Fairtrade along with the Rainforest Alliance, those attempts will be just that… attempts. Firstly, the ventures of the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade must be laid out to understand what we must do in return. 

Fairtrade Certified coffee directly impacts the lives of the farmers and workers, supplying them with a healthy lifestyle through “fair prices, community development and environmental stewardship.” Pulled from the same article by Grounds For Change titled, “Fair Trade Coffee,” “Fair trade coffee farmers market their own harvests through direct, long-term contracts with international buyers, learning how to manage their businesses and compete in the global marketplace. Receiving a fair price for their harvest allows these farmers to invest in their families’ health care and education, reinvest in quality and protect the environment. This empowerment model lifts farming families from poverty through trade, not aid, creating a more equitable and sustainable model of international trade that benefits producers, consumers, industry and the Earth.” Being fortunate enough to be granted a fair price is something many farmers can’t obtain. This cycle of unfair prices causes a domino effect across the whole market. Unable to obtain secure and reasonable prices for their coffee beans, farmers are forced to cut production costs. Choosing the cheaper options for everything results in questionable practices, thus hurting the environment. All of the environmental decay from coffee farming is a direct result of the farmers not being able to support their families. Desperation and distress are a dangerous combination when it is affecting your family. 

The Rainforest Alliance standards are meant to protect the environment and the rights of workers. In an article published by EthicalCoffee.net titled, “Rainforest Alliance Certification,” the author details how the Rainforest Alliance targets “Farms that coexist with natural forest cover, like coffee farms, are required to maintain 40 percent canopy coverage” while growing their beans. This requirement helps lessen the reach of deforestation on many coffee farms throughout the “bean belt.” “Farmers are not allowed to alter natural water courses. While they can use chemicals, such as pesticides, they must maintain buffer zones of natural vegetation between the crop areas and areas used by humans, including public roads. The standards also prohibit such activities as trafficking in wild animals, destruction of ecosystems, dumping untreated wastewater, and other harmful practices.” These requirements, in theory, should produce a healthy environment.

If you are willing to buy coffee brands with the Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance Certifications, then you must commit yourself to helping the environment in similar, yet helpful ways. Although the efforts by Fairtrade and the Rainforest Alliance are out of reach for the average consumer, you must commit yourself to helping in ways that are convenient and helpful within your realm. To endorse Fairtrade/Rainforest Alliance you must buy coffee brands with either of their certifications. Next step is to invest in an eco-friendly coffee maker to help one of the biggest impacts we have on the environment. Lastly, the need for a reusable coffee cup cannot be understated. Using disposable cups is our greatest impact on the environment when it pertains to coffee consumption. 

Funding each association will increase their reach, thus affecting the more crucial environments, while simultaneously helping the “big picture.” Both the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade are non-profit organizations, any donations towards their cause will undoubtedly help them continue their fight to make the world a better place. 

In conclusion, the Coffee Industry and their eco-friendly qualities are pointing to a more successful future. From the hard work proven by non-profit organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade, to the sustainable improvements by Starbucks, Dunkin’, Maxwell House and Keurig, and lastly environmentally friendly alternatives adopted by the consumer, all in conjunction will produce a successful future for generations to come. I can acknowledge that’s a lot to ask for, but ultimately perfection is what we can all strive to achieve. The world is in good hands if we can all band together and save what’s most important; our future.

References

The bean belt – coffees from around the world. Adams + Russell Coffee Roasters. (2021, July 20). Retrieved October 23, 2021, from https://www.adamsandrussell.co.uk/the-bean-belt-coffees-from-around-the-world/

Fletcher, I. (2002). Ian Fletcher an effective approach for the … – core. An Effective Approach for the Management of Waste Coffee Grounds. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/74208261.pdf

Rankinen, L. (2020, December 16). Unique research revealed that significant amounts of coffee go to waste. Luonnonvarakeskus. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from https://www.luke.fi/en/references/significant-amounts-of-coffee-go-to-waste/

Okafor, J. (2021, September 14). Coffee – environmental impact of our caffeine habit. TRVST. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from https://www.trvst.world/sustainable-living/coffee-environmental-impact/#cmf_footnote_5

Sorby, K. (2002, June). Environmental benefits of sustainable coffee. Documents & reports – all documents. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/831701468762315416/text/295970Env0bene10also02453501public1.txt

IvyPanda. (2021, August 4). Starbucks Company’s Environmental Impacts. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/starbucks-companys-environmental-impacts/

Dunkin’ Sustainability Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://news.dunkindonuts.com/file/sustainability-fact-sheet?action=

Kraft Heinz releases Maxwell House Compostable Coffee Pods in Canada. Waste360. (2020, September 4). Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://www.waste360.com/sustainability/kraft-heinz-releases-maxwell-house-compostable-coffee-pods-canada

Scauzillo, S. (2019, July 19). The curious, environmental case of the keurig K-cups (or what to do with them). San Gabriel Valley Tribune. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://www.sgvtribune.com/2019/07/19/the-curious-environmental-case-of-the-keurig-k-cups-or-what-to-do-with-them/

Fair Trade Coffee. Grounds for Change. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://groundsforchange.com/blogs/learn/fair-trade-coffee

Rainforest Alliance Certification. What is Rainforest Alliance certified coffee? (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2021, from http://www.ethicalcoffee.net/rainforest.html

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