Millions of people all over the world start their day with a hot cup of coffee. Many people rely on the caffeinated boost this dark liquid provided to help them get up and get going & get through the day. Worldwide, we drink over 2 billion cups of coffee every day. Our consumption of coffee is global, and so is its 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.
The burgeoning coffee culture over the last few decades has been beneficial to the economy. The UK’s coffee industry employs about 210,000 people and contributes a Gross Value-Added 9.1 billion pounds to the economy8.
From 2020 to 2021, about 166.63 million 60 kg bags of coffee were consumed globally7. About 80% of UK households purchase instant coffee, and 80% of individuals who visit coffee shops do so at least once a week. Some 16% of coffee drinkers in the UK visit a coffee shop every day.
Coffee is a favorite beverage for many people all over the world. Research predicts that by 2050, the consumption of coffee will have doubled2. As the coffee industry grows, so do the environmental consequences of coffee production.
Shade-grown coffee is reported to be more environmentally friendly than its counterpart. Shade cultivation is the traditional method of coffee farming, where the coffee plant grows under the shad canopy provided by trees. Growing coffee under the shade of other trees as part of the agricultural ecosystem protects wildlife.
However, a more intensive method of coffee cultivation has been adopted over the years to keep up with growing demand. Below we discuss some of the impacts of coffee on the environment.
Cultivating coffee accounts for 68% of the coffee industry’s climate impact. Coffee, usually grown in tropical and subtropical areas, produces the most carbon emissions during farming of the coffee crop, regardless of the region of origin.
There are two species of coffee plants; arabica and robusta. Arabica coffee plants thrive in areas shaded by sunlight. Sun cultivation of coffee began in the 1970s, and over the years, coffee farmers have veered towards sun-grown coffee.
Since 1996, the portion of land used to cultivate shade-grown coffee has dropped to 20%6. 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.
The sun-grown coffee operates on a monoculture system of cultivation, which affects biodiversity in that ecosystem. Monoculture results in lower soil quality. About 50% of the land used to produce coffee worldwide will be unproductive by 2050. In Latin America, the amount of non-productive areas could be as high as 88%1.
Without the canopy of trees for shade, the soil is also vulnerable to topsoil erosion.
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 regions4.
They clear large portions of forests to plant coffee directly under the sun. Such acts contribute to deforestation, loss of wildlife habitat, and climate change. A 2010 study found that more than three-quarters of coffee farms in Brazil and Vietnam have no tree cover.
According to Chris Willie, head of the Rainforest Alliance, shaded coffee farms that are certified are the next best thing to rainforests.
The World Wildlife Foundation reports that 2.5 million acres of land have been cleared in central America to grow coffee. In 2001, about 11.8 million hectares were used to produce coffee; only 2.3 million hectares of that land was not formerly a rainforest.
After cultivation, the next stage is turning the coffee beans into coffee grounds. According to research by Luke, coffee beans roasting, packaging, and transporting only account for 4% of coffee’s environmental impact3.
A research study assessed the impacts of 547,000 tons of coffee grown in central America over six months. It polluted about 110,000 cubic meters of water and generated over 1.1 million tons of pulp daily5.
Cultivating coffee directly under the sun in a monocultural farming system raises the vulnerability of coffee plants to pests. Therefore, coffee farmers have to use a lot of pesticides to ensure a healthy harvest. Sun cultivation also consumes chemical fertilizers. Agricultural pesticide and fertilizer use pollutes the air and groundwater, contaminating the soil and water supply.
Organic waste from coffee processing is a significant river pollutant. 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 plastic in disposable coffee cups pollutes the environment like other plastics. After some time in the landfill, it breaks down into microplastics that pollute the oceans. Ocean plastic waste also poses a threat to the survival of marine wildlife and the well-being of humans.
There are also reports of caffeine contaminating the water supply in countries with high coffee consumption. Caffeine is typically introduced into the environment when we dispose of coffee grounds and waste coffee. Evidence has shown that even when we consume coffee, about 2%-3% of the caffeine content comes out of our system intact and enters the sewage system. Although they treat sewage water, facilities can remove only about 70% to 98% of the caffeine, the rest entering into natural water. This results in aquatic wildlife becoming vulnerable to caffeine’s adverse effects.
Many farmers cut down trees for fuel to roast coffee beans. Some producers may also use fossil fuels to process their coffee.
How you brew coffee can also consume energy that adds to your carbon footprint, as electric coffee makers use up a lot of energy. You can cut back on energy consumption when brewing your coffee by using a manual brewer rather than an electric coffee maker. Coffee pods use less energy for brewing per cup but leaving your pod-brewer in standby mode for continuous hot water supply increases energy consumption.
Manual zero-waste coffee makers like the french press, lever-driven brewer, and AeroPress use zero electricity. They help you save on energy bills and cut back your carbon footprint. The French press system consumes the lowest energy at every stage.
A study by Luke, the natural resources institute in Finland, found that coffee waste is the third-largest category of household waste. An average coffee drinker in Finland throws away 2.5 liters of coffee every year. In some households, the coffee waste amounted to 13 liters per person annually. The amount of coffee that goes down the drain worldwide results in a waste of resources and increases the carbon footprint of coffee drinkers.
Even if you always finish the last drop in every cup of coffee, you are still generating waste if you use disposable cups, filters, and coffee pods. Single usage of products does not allow us to get the highest potential value of the raw materials and energy that goes into making them.
Disposable coffee cups are not curbside recyclable because they make them with a combination of paper and plastic. Recycling technology and facilities for recycling coffee cups are not commonly available. Therefore, only a minute number of the 2.5 billion cups used every year in Britain get recycled. Coffee cup waste generates a yearly carbon footprint of 152,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Using coffee filters also creates waste in the environment. It is also an unsustainable use of resources as we use filters once and discards them. Coffee pods also generate waste, as empty shells are not recyclable. Although some coffee pods are tagged as eligible for recycling by the manufacturers, the lack of appropriate recycling facilities means that a sizable amount of coffee pods still end up in landfills.
Coffee from big brands may taste great, but that is not all you should look out for. Coffee, like most, highly demanded consumer goods, has a complex supply chain. The complexity makes it difficult to trace the farms the beans originate from. It also makes it hard to verify the exact working conditions of workers in those coffee plantations.
Another problem with the long and untraceable supply chain is that it allows for the exploitation of farmers by intermediaries. Third-world coffee farmers receive around 10% of the eventual retail price the finished product sells at, on average. Market fluctuations brought on by competitive price reductions and undercutting make matters worse for coffee growers.
Over 125 million people work in the coffee industry. Climate change and unfair trade and labor practices threaten their continued employment.
Coffee plants grown with the traditional methods of shade cultivation system discourage cutting down of other tree species and help to ensure that wildlife remains in their natural habitat. It also uses fewer pesticides when compared to sun-grown coffee.
Shade cultivation can also prevent topsoil erosion and preserve soil health. Some certifications to help recognize eco-friendly coffee include Rainforest Alliance and Bird Friendly certifications.
Zero sun exposure is not enough; you should also consider the manufacturer’s practices. From roasted beans to packaging, the entire process should be energy-efficient and eco-friendly.
Avoid disposable coffee cups, they look like they make them just with paper, and that may make you assume it's biodegradable. It is not. Some coffee shops participate in recycling programs that allow customers to recycle used cups. But this is not available everywhere in the world at present.
So you should get a reusable coffee cup and take it with you to your favorite coffee shop. You could also request that they serve you a cup made from plant-based materials. Plastic made from plant-based materials is called bioplastic. They have a lesser environmental impact than fossil fuel plastic and may decompose into organic matter completely.
Third parties can certify coffee grounds and coffee shops for eco-friendliness and positive social impact. For each external auditing body, the certification standards differ in what they focus on. The fairtrade foundation, for instance, focuses on humane labor and trade practices. It is one of the most widely applied sustainable systems in the coffee marketplace.
The Rainforest Alliance gives certificates for environmentally friendly coffee cultivation.
Fairtrade coffee represents about 27% of the market share. Fairtrade coffee farmers all over the world produce approximately 560,900 tonnes of coffee beans annually. That is enough coffee to make over 58.9 billion single espressos.
A sun-grown coffee bean may be abundant and cheap; however, the practice is unsustainable. It will result in soil degradation, deforestation, and global warming, affecting coffee production. Some coffee farmers are already being affected by climate change, and continued environmental distress may cause less yield and price fluctuations.
The coffee industry will benefit greatly in terms of sustainability and ethicality if consumers become more conscious of the environmental cost of the beverage. A higher consumer preference for sustainable coffee will prompt coffee producers to adopt more sustainable practices.
Pablo Imbach et al (2017) Coupling of pollination services and coffee suitability under climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
Unique research revealed that significant amounts of coffee go to waste. (2020) Luke Natural Resources Institute Finland.
Unique research revealed that significant amounts of coffee go to waste. (2020) Luke Natural Resources Institute Finland.
Environmental benefits of sustainable coffee (English). Sorby, Kristina, The World Bank (2002)
An Effective Approach For The Management Of Waste Coffee Grounds (pdf), Ian Adrian Fletcher, The Leeds School of Architecture
Shalene Jha, Christopher M. Bacon, Stacy M. Philpott, V. Ernesto Méndez, Peter Läderach, Robert A. Rice, Shade Coffee: Update on a Disappearing Refuge for Biodiversity, BioScience, Volume 64, Issue 5, May 2014, Pages 416–428, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biu038
Jan Conway (2021) Global coffee consumption 2012/13 - 20202/2021. Statista
Coffee facts. British Coffee Association.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.