Ahhh, coffee! The beverage that fuels our world can be found in the background of events ranging from revolutions to random acts of kindness. Like many things, the brewing of coffee runs the gamut from zero waste to uber wasteful depending on the methods applied. With a few tweaks, you can cut down on the waste your daily ritual produces.
Let's start with the most wasteful method, the K-cup. This one can't really be improved upon because the specialized cups are made from plastic and are difficult to recycle because of their contents, size, and material makeup. Keurig says they are working on their sustainability, but being that there are so many other inherently less wasteful options to choose from, let's just move on.
Beyond K-cups, there are many iterations of coffee making that generate very little waste. The method in the graphic above is just one such option. Moka pots use metal filters and just your stovetop to produce a very strong brew. I tried this method for a while, but it always tasted a little burnt to me. A low energy method is the very popular cold brew. You can use a jar or your french press to steep coffee grounds in your fridge. I love cold brew so much I have one of these special pitchers. No need for a filter when using a french press, but if you don't have one you can get this brilliant cold brew kit from CoffeeSock which allows you to use a jar.
Everyone should be starting with fair trade coffee. Being that coffee is a such popular beverage, there is plenty of money to be made and people to be exploited within the industry. Fair trade just means the farmers will always receive at least a "fair" base price for their raw beans, helping them avoid having to use unscrupulous middlemen who keep the prices low. It's not a perfect system, but it's simply a safety net so that farmers in developing areas are not quite so vulnerable to changing markets. Subscription services like Trade as One give farmers the added benefit of predictability and stability in demand. A new company called Thrive is helping farmers retain ownership of their beans throughout the roasting and packaging processes (where much of the value is added to a coffee crop). This is not the same as fair trade, though fair trade farmers are free to work with Thrive. Farmers who are willing to use Thrive take on some of the risk regarding quality and sales, but are afforded a greater slice of the final profit. Farmers are encouraged to start using Thrive with a small portion of their crop and to grow from there. It's important that these different models exist so that coffee farmers have options and agency in their futures.
I'll confess that I have bought ground coffee up until recently. Then I read that fillers have become a problem in ground coffee as a result of shortages brought on by drought and crop disease. I also (don't hate me) sometimes receive free coffee beans to try out and it became inconvenient for me not to have one. Of course, I researched the type of grinder I should buy and the resounding answer was a burr grinder. The burrs, which are kind of like gears, make for a more consistent grind than blade grinders. But good burr grinders are expensive, like hundreds of dollars expensive, and huge hulking machines that probably wouldn't even fit in my kitchen. I looked around ebay for used ones, but decided I'd rather purchase one new with the ability to send it back, get repairs, etc. I finally came across manual grinders and they seemed like the perfect solution: cheaper, smaller, and feed into my fantasy for a simpler life. I was enamored with this one from Red Rooster Trading Company, but it is sold out everywhere so I settled for this Hario Canister Ceramic Coffee Mill. It works well and I like the rubberized bottom that helps it stay in place during use. It will definitely take longer than your electric grinder, but not by much, which is an acceptable trade off for size in my opinion.
Use whatever you already have to make hot water. I specifically bought this one for the pour over method, but anything will do. The filter is where you have the ability to cut down on waste the most. Just about any method of brewing allows for a reuseable filter, including drip machines. I currently use these organic cotton reusable ones with my Chemex, but I'm now interested in the metal Kone Coffee Filter. Seems like it might be easier to clean though I'm not sure it's worth the price.
Plastic doesn't come into play much in coffee making until you get into machines. The carafe is, of course, glass or metal which makes it safe for you to drink from. The plastic is an issue when you are done with the machine and want to dispose of it. Machines would fall under electronic waste and you should consult your city's recycling program for proper disposal. Ultimately, I prefer something like the Chemex, which would be completely recyclable at end of use.
The final place you can cut down on waste is in the way you dispose of your used coffee grounds. I have to confess this is an area where I could improve as well. There are many ways to reuse them in your own home (especially if you have a garden), but the easiest way is probably just to compost them. For me, this means adding them to the compostable food waste I take to my local farmer's market. Another cool way to use them is to feed the growth of your very own mushrooms! Back to the Roots has created a kit that comes with everything you need to grow the first crop. If you want to keep growing them, you can feed them your used coffee grounds.
Even if you go out for coffee, bring your own travel mug or mason jar to be filled up. Most coffee shops are happy to use your container and might even give you a discount for doing so. Your daily coffee doesn't have to create daily waste. Evaluate where you can cut out trash, stick to it, and it will quickly become part of your ritual.
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This post contains affiliate links, which means I get a small commission if you buy anything through the link (it doesn't change the amount you pay). I only include brands that I believe in, that I would use myself, or think might be of interest to you.
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