Climate change is destroying our coffee
When I was growing up, we made coffee in a cloth bag that was sewn along a round ring. It was probably homemade.
We hooked the bag over a coffee can and then poured boiling water through it. The coffee was excellent. After using it, we rinsed the cloth bag.
And, although we were far from thinking about saving the environment in those days, the cloth filter was cheap and reusable. It was a sensible choice. Fortunately, cloth coffee filters are making a comeback.
Climate change is destroying our coffee growing. And we are adding to climate change by deforesting the rainforest for coffee growing.
The ever-increasing need for more space for coffee planting causes the deforesting of huge swathes of the South American rainforest. Of the 50 countries in the world with the most deforestation, 37 are coffee producers.
This deforestation destroys the natural forest habitat. And with it, it kills the wildlife that depends on it. Not only the indigenous forest birds are dying, but also birds that migrate from American suburbs.
Plus, the bare, sun-drenched plantations need huge amounts of chemical fertilisers. This is killing our soil and water resources. It is destroying our planet.
This is a vicious circle. The coffee-growing methods add to our climate change. And the heat and drought of a warming planet are, in turn, killing coffee growing. It is estimated that at least 50% of coffee-growing land will be unsuitable already by 2050. It will affect especially Arabica coffee, which is extremely climate sensitive.
Arabica coffee beans are used for our ground coffee. Robusta coffee is what we usually find in instant coffee. With climate change, Arabica will become scarce. And it will cost us much, much more.
Dying birds, a ruined environment, a constantly becoming warmer and drier planet, higher costs and the possibility of going without our daily mug of coffee: all of these are matters that concern all of us.
Because of the heat, water will become scarcer. And coffee-growing needs lots of water. In 2003 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) found that a standard cup of coffee requires 140 litres of water. Most of that is used to grow the coffee plant itself.
Coffee trees are sensitive to climate changes. In 2015, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) released a report warning that at least 50 percent of coffee-growing land will be unsuitable by 2050 due to higher world temperatures.
Moving the plantations to cooler areas might be a solution, but it won’t suit the millions of coffee growers to move away from their homes.
Coffee processing plants produce a huge amount of waste, and this usually discharges into rivers. There it kills fish and causes problems such as algae production, which covers water surfaces and makes the water unusable.
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- Globally we consume about 2,25 billion cups of coffee each day.
- In 2017 there were more than four times as many coffee shops in Britain as there were in 2000.
- 125 million people worldwide depend on coffee for their livelihood.
- 25 million smallholders produce 80% of coffee.
- Brazil, the biggest coffee producer, produced more than 51 million bags of beans from 2017 to 2018.
Coffee paper filters can’t be recycled. And if you use plastic in your coffee brewing, it can kill you.
Can used paper coffee filters be recycled?
I asked myself this question one morning, as I was putting a new paper coffee filter in my old green plastic filer.
The answer I received to this relatively simple question led me to an array of facts about coffee growing and the environment, to worries about birdlife in coffee-growing areas, and on to the health hazards of my trusted old plastic coffee filter.
So, can I recycle the white paper coffee filters that I use every day? The answer seems rather straightforward. No, I can’t. These filters are contaminated with coffee oil, and dirty paper isn’t recyclable. It goes into the landfill bin.
At the best, you can compost them. And hope there aren’t any leaching chemicals that will contaminate the earth.
But my idle paper filter question took me to another about coffee. And then, to yet another.
How can coffee-growing be bad for birdlife and the environment? Because sun-cultivation methods in coffee-growing require rainforest deforestation. And chopping down native trees to make way for more coffee-growing land is bad for birds. It ruins their indigenous habitat. This even affects many migratory birds from suburban American gardens.
Furthermore, deforestation causes erosion, makes the use of chemicals necessary and destroys the environment.
While I was sipping my coffee in my living room, I could not immediately do something about the planet and its wildlife. But I did find out something else, and I could act. It was about my age-old, much-loved, green plastic coffee filter and plastic mesh inner. And I dumped it, there and then.
For many years, this is also how my mornings used to start. Something is comforting about folding open a new coffee filter, scooping in coffee grounds, pouring water over it, inhaling the aroma, and tasting the bitter brew. It is an intrinsic part of waking up and preparing for the day.
The used coffee dregs I mixed with water and poured in my garden beds. Now and then I washed the paper filter for another use. Mostly, without another thought, I dumped the filter and its contents in the bin.
I never once wondered if my coffee-drinking routine could be bad for the environment. The thought that I might be poisoning myself with my plastic filter cone never occurred to me.
Most pour-on coffee-making methods require disposable paper coffee filters. You put the ground coffee in the paper filter, within another filter, put it on a mug or jug, and pour boiling water over it. You can do it manually or with a drip coffee machine.
Coffee filters consist of bleached or unbleached wood pulp, mostly from eucalyptus, hemp and bamboo. Production methods also add synthetics and other fibres, even such as glass, to the filter paper.
The unbleached paper is brown, like wood. Chlorine or oxygen bleach the filters to produce the white ones that one usually buys.
But, the chlorine bleaching process can produce dioxins. And dioxins are toxic and can cause infertility, developmental problems, hormonal changes, immune system damage and cancer. According to some studies, even up to 40% of a filter’s dioxins can leach into one’s coffee.
Not a warm, comforting thought, is it?
Some filters are bleached with oxygen. This is more environmentally friendly than using chlorine, but still a chemical process.
For many years I used white filters in my old plastic cone filter. That I was poisoning myself never occurred to me.
How could my innocent-looking, loved and trusted old plastic filter cone be bad for my health?
In fact, all plastic can damage one’s health.
Plastic isn’t chemically stable. It can cause toxins to leach into food and drinks. In 2019, laboratory researchers tested various plastics. And 76% of those were toxic.
Some of the chemicals, such as BPA (bisphenol A), are endocrine disrupters. These mimic oestrogen activity – they behave like oestrogens, and accumulate in the body. Cancer, especially of the breast, can develop.
The leaching gets worse when the plastic gets older and receives heat and sunlight.
The researchers found that even some BPA-free plastic containers released synthetic oestrogens. And in some cases, BPA-free products that were tested leached more of these hormone-altering oestrogens than BPA-containing plastic.
If one wants to steer away from all plastic, it means also plastic coffee makers, jugs, filter cones and coffee pods.
Coffee pod machines use coffee pods. These are growing in popularity.
The research firm Euromonitor found that, in America, the sale of coffee pod machines increased from 1,8 million in 2008 to 20,7 million in 2018. More than 40% of American households and nearly a third of British ones own a coffee pod machine.
The British manufacturer of compostable coffee capsules, Halo, says every minute about 39 000 of these pods are manufactured worldwide. We daily dump up to 29 000 of them in landfill sites.
In the past, all single-use coffee pods were made from plastic. Some were compostable.
Most coffee pod machines now sell aluminium pods that one can fill with coffee and use again.
There are many different opinions about the safety of aluminium. According to some, aluminium is a potential neurotoxin. Exposure to high doses of aluminium can cause dementia, impaired neural function and lung irritation.
But these pods have a food-grade shellac coating. So, the coffee grounds and the water don’t come into contact with the aluminium.
The downside can be that the inside of these machines possibly contains plastic parts. These parts can leach plastic into your brew.
And shellac is made from the secretions of the lac beetle. It isn’t vegan.
Fortunately, one has a choice between a wide array of coffee-making equipment. There is glass, porcelain and stainless steel. And all of them can be re-used and recycled.
I chose a French press, also called a plunger, made of glass and stainless steel. My coffee-making ritual is different, and I miss it. But the coffee tastes good.
It takes a coffee tree three to four years before it starts bearing fruit. The fruit looks like cherries – the seed inside is what we use as coffee.
Although most coffee producers are in the subtropical regions of Latin America, coffee is originally from Ethiopia. This country is the world’s fifth-biggest producer.
Ethiopia traditionally cultivates coffee under the canopies of larger, native trees. This coffee is called shade-grown. The large trees serve as protection against moisture and cold.
Because the forest trees and other plant provide the necessary nutrients, it isn’t necessary to use chemicals in the growing process. Even if the coffee isn’t certified organic, it still is. Shade-grown coffee-growing protects the natural habitat of plants, birds and other animals.
Because this coffee takes longer to mature, it results in coffee with rich, complex aromas.
As the demand for coffee grew since the 1970’s, more growing space was needed. For that, big areas of the rainforest were cleared. According to the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), 37 of the 50 countries in the world with the highest deforestation rates are coffee producing.
The coffee that is produced in deforested areas is called sun-cultivated. Only specially developed cultivars, that can withstand growing in harsh sunlight, grow here.
Because growers removed the protective natural tree habitat, it became necessary to use chemical fertilisers. This harms the natural biodiversity, ruins the soil and leads to erosion. It also affects the habitat of migratory birds, such as warblers, flycatchers and thrush, from many American states.
Fortunately, the Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly programme and The Rainforest Alliance step in to make coffee-growing more environmentally friendly.
The Smithsonian Zoo in Washington has a Bird Friendly programme that runs in collaboration with its Migratory Bird Center.
The Bird Friendly coffee programme promotes shade-grown, organic coffee. This coffee comes from farms that provide a good habitat for birds and other wildlife.
Bird Friendly coffees are grown in the highlands of Latin American countries, Ethiopia and Thailand.
Look out for their Bird Friendly logo on coffee packets.
The Rainforest Alliance is an international non-profit organisation that works towards protecting forests and the health of the ecosystem.
Through its training and certification program, they help over two million farmers embrace growing practices that can help build resilience to climate change.
The Alliance aims to improve the livelihoods of farmers and forest communities, promote their human rights, and help them mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis.
Look out for Rainforest Alliance certified products and their logo, a little frog.
Developing countries, and often small family-owned farms, produce our coffee.
Fairtrade Certified coffee producers are guaranteed to receive at least the Fairtrade Minimum Price for their coffee. In 2018, these coffee farmers earned an estimated €76,6 million (about £66 million) in Fairtrade Premiums. Fairtrade Certified invested this money in farmer services and community projects.
Fairtrade Certified also encourages farmers to use production methods that support plant diversity, waste and water management, and the minimised use of chemicals.
All we have to do is to support the battle against climate change. We can do this by making ethical choices. Reduce our carbon emissions, save energy and water, eat less meat or preferably none at all. Say no to animal products. Recycle, downsize.
We can also help the climate, and with it coffee-growing, by supporting shade-grown coffee. Drink coffee from Ethiopia. Also, buy Bird Friendly coffee and support The Rainforest Alliance.
WHAT MAKES A COFFEE SNEAKER?
• 100% recycled upper made from coffee & recycled plastic
• Completely recycled waterproof membrane
• Fully recycled polyester sock liner on removable insole
• BPA-free high-performance midsole
• All-natural rubber outsole
• 1,000,000 plastic bottles are purchased every minute.
• 6,000,000 tons of coffee waste go into landfills every year.
• The methane emitted from coffee waste alone adds up to the equivalent emissions of 10 million cars.