K-Cups Against the World

I need a cup of coffee to become a functioning adult, so every morning I groggily turn on my Keurig. I’m certainly not alone. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, nearly two out of three adult Americans drink at least one cup a day. Just think how coffee has percolated through our lives. We have super cool coffee mugs, specialty drinks, flavored creamer, and coffee houses galore. Unfortunately, our coffee habits aren’t environmentally friendly, but you can help. Here’s how:

1. Buy shade grown, not sun grown, coffee.

Even before it arrives at the local coffee house, coffee has negatively impacted the environment. Coffee production needs land and water, and the increased demand for coffee crops has led to deforestation in tropical and subtropical areas, particularly in Latin and Central America, where coffee plants thrive. One way to grow coffee is through sun cultivation, a type of farming where coffee is grown in large, open swaths, directly in the sun. Think of a glorious rainforest turned into a cornfield. When coffee grows naturally, without human oversight, it grows at the bottom of a forest in the shade with a longer growing time, but it fairs well under direct sun too. By clearing out forests, producers do not have to worry as much about weeds and other factors, but at what cost? With fewer trees in the world, many animals lose their natural habitats and less oxygen is produced, a factor contributing to climate change. Runoff from pesticides and fertilizers enter waterways, thus harming water quality and creatures living in the water. Plus, machines used to plant and harvest rely on fossil fuels and give off exhaust, which again contributes to climate change. Ironically, global warming will ultimately harm coffee production.

Fortunately, some producers recognize this precarious situation and follow shade-grown coffee farming practices. Instead of clearing trees, these growers simply clear out large areas of overgrowth in the floor of the forest and replace it with coffee plants. Not all of the ground plants are removed, so creatures have other plants to munch on too. Plus, the birds that live in the forest will eat the insects, thus reducing the need for pesticides. Large machinery is replaced with smaller tools and hired farm laborers. The shade-grown method leaves the forest nearly undisturbed, reducing the environmental harm of coffee production and providing a more natural ecosystem. According to an April 2017 Scientific American article, shade-grown “means lower exposure to chemicals... better quality and taste, thereby fetching a higher price in the market for farmers already struggling with poverty and making a better tasting cup for consumers.” This production system costs more, so shade-grown beans may be more expensive, but your money goes towards providing more jobs and doing less harm.

2. Avoid non-reusable plastic K-Cups

The boom of individual-serve coffee makers—most notably the Keurig—is great for those who don’t want to brew an entire pot of coffee for a single cup. Keurigs, in theory, save money and electricity by heating a smaller amount of water and using fewer grounds. This sounds like a great environmental saver on the surface. However, the individual plastic K-Cups are filling landfills quickly because most of the pods are not biodegradable or recyclable. Why? Because the plastic pod is designed to survive extremely high temperatures, has a non-recyclable coffee filter, and may be reinforced with tin foil. James Hablin of The Atlantic reports that “in 2014, enough K-Cups were sold that if placed end-to-end, they would circle the globe 10.5 times.” With everything else that gets added to landfills every year, you can see why the Earth’s in trouble. Technically, the pods can be recycled if you take the time to dismantle them, but only a small number of people do this regularly. To reduce the number of K-Cups that I contribute to the dump, I personally use reusable K-Cups. I don’t have to brew an entire pot of coffee, while at the same time reducing the environmental damage of K-Cups. I only have to throw out the used grounds, just like using a normal coffee pot.

3. Rinse and Recycle

Coffeehouses are great places to meet friends, study, read, or stare out the window daydreaming, but many times we just grab a cup of java while on the go. Very few of us have reserved tables like the Friends’ group, so instead of drinking out of large ceramic mugs, we have to-go plastic or paper cups. Unfortunately, many of these to-go cups also end up in the trash because coffeehouses and their patrons do not rinse the glasses and recycle. That means lids, cups, and straws are all added to the never ending piles of trash. Per the National Parks Service, “Americans use 500 million drinking straws every day... this would fill over 125 school buses with straws every day. That's 46,400 school buses every year!” Throwing away a straw may seem minor, considering everything that is pitched every day, but straws and other to-go coffee cups add up and negatively impact environmental health. The organization No Straw Please suggests that cafes should only offer straws upon request and individuals should make a personal effort to reject straws. That alone will make a huge impact. Finally, instead of simply throwing away carry-out cups, rinse and recycle. Rinse and recycle.

Small changes make a huge difference to our Earth’s health. While the budget cuts to the EPA will ultimately harm conservation, we all have a personal responsibility to amp up our environmental efforts instead of relying on the EPA to clean up our environmentally harmful indulgences.  

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. You got this.