sustainability

Looking under the surface at Mughead coffee

Mughead Coffee, Coffee in New Cross

Set back from the busy A2, Mughead Coffee offers a space to unwind.

A new café has just opened in New Cross. Mughead Coffee opened in July 2017 and sits fronting the A2, part of an old Roman road connecting London to Dover. The large pedestrianised space outside the café provides plenty of room for a few tables together with some further chairs arranged along the café window. It also means that the cafe is set-back far enough from the road that it is possible to sit outside and enjoy the surroundings. Inside, there were plentiful seats but, sadly equally plentiful numbers of occupants relaxing in this new cafe. Clearly this new coffee place in New Cross is proving popular. And why not! Just down the road from the London Particular, Mughead Coffee serves Square Mile in a friendly atmosphere. It is easy to see this becoming a popular local haunt. The usual array of coffees were on offer together with a filter option but as we arrived shortly after lunch, the cake/edible option appeared a little depleted. The interior of the café is quite light and airy with comfortable chairs at the back and more regular seating towards the front. We ordered a long black and a ginger beer and then adjourned to a table outside to await our drinks.

The tables outside are arranged on a sloping pavement. This is not really a big deal, but did remind me of a comment made by the lecturer who was trying to instil experimental design into us as undergraduates: The only stable table is a three legged one. However there was not much time to reflect on that as very soon both coffee and ginger beer arrived with a glass of ice. The natural light revealed the oils on the surface of the coffee as they moved with convection. Different convection zones moving in the coffee just as air parcels do in the sky to form mackerel skies or hot lava moves to form different rock formations, both on Earth and elsewhere.

coffee and ice in New Cross on a wooden table

Coffee and ice at Mughead Coffee. Note the reflections on the coffee surface.

Once the ginger beer was poured into the glass, the ice cubes floated upwards with just a fraction of them bobbing above the surface, the majority of the ice cube beneath. A glance around our surroundings revealed other hints of sub-surface structures. A drain cover nearby indicated, together with some tiling along the pedestrianised zone, the line of the rain sewer running along the road. A public telephone box had no wires obviously leading from it meaning that all the wiring for the communication had to be subterranean. And a raised flower bed, full of thriving plants, had a little drainage hole right at the bottom in order that heavy rain storms did not drown the plants.

This last feature reminded me of a documentary I’d recently seen concerning climate change. Often we tend to think of climate change as involving things that we can see: the melting of glaciers or the disappearance of sea-ice, or freaky rain storms that cause local flooding. However there is another aspect, a sub-surface aspect, that has perhaps been far more visually alarming than even the break-off of the Larson A, B and C ice shelves. If only we could see it. The problem is that, as it happens below the surface of the sea, few of us see it, it is hidden from view and therefore easily hidden from our conscience. It is the drastic effect that rising sea water temperatures are having on a particularly unusual plant-animal combination, the coral reefs. Coral reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef just off Australia, are animals that exist in a symbiotic relationship with a particular type of algae called zooxanthellae. Although the ‘mouths’ of the coral eat passing zoo plankton at night, during the day, they get other nutrients from the photosynthesis products produced by the zooxanthellae that live within their skeletons. These plants give the corals those amazing colours (as well as food). In return, the coral provides the plant life with shelter (they live within the coral itself) and extra carbon dioxide.

Outside Mughead Coffee New Cross

Indications of a hidden architecture. Can you see the drainage hole at the bottom of the planter at the back of the photo?

As the sea temperature rises, the zooxanthellae become less efficient at photosynthesising and so of less use to the coral. If the temperature stays high, the coral ejects the plant life from its body causing the coral to lose all its colour, it has bleached. What sort of high temperatures are needed? It seems that if the temperature of the water is about 1-2°C above the usual seasonal maximum, the coral are ok for a few weeks. But if the temperature rise is 3-4°C (or higher) above the usual seasonal maximum, the damage can occur in just 2 days¹. Coral bleaching does not necessarily lead to coral death but if the bleaching is sustained vast areas of coral reefs can die and get destroyed, with significant impact to the local ecosystem. As corals host “nearly one-third of the world’s marine fish species…”² this impact will be far reaching and affect the livelihoods of millions of people³.

Although small scale coral bleaching has been documented since 1979¹, the first global scale coral bleaching occurred in 1998. It was 12 years until the next global bleaching event occurred in 2010. Following that, we have just had the third global bleaching event in 2015-16. In the latest episode, it is estimated that 29% of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral died (as in actually died, not just bleached). These temperature increases can be associated with global warming caused by increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (for more info click here (opens as pdf) or refer to [4]).

The frequency of these events, together with the fact that there were no global bleaching events prior to 1998 should be a dramatic warning siren calling on us to do something to arrest climate change. But what can be done and is it already too late? Well, it is not yet too late to do something. The plants, thriving in the box in front of Mughead can emphasise to us the importance of maintaining our local environment and by extension our global one. Taking time to slow down and take stock of what is beautiful in our environment, and the habits we need to develop to keep this for future generations, these are things that we can do. If you eat fish, was it caught sustainably? Some fishing methods can kill the coral reefs, check before you eat. This is not going to be hard to do. After all, we already do this with coffee. Many coffee drinkers (and roasters) will check how the coffee is grown and processed for both environmental cost and the conditions experienced by the farmers. Many such small actions can cumulatively build to an effort to stop climate change.

Which brings us, in a sense, back to the surroundings at Mughead Coffee. Sitting down and taking time to enjoy that coffee while appreciating our surroundings, the visible and the hidden, the busy road and the mini-oasis of plants in the planter, may help us to see that connectedness that pushes us to accept our responsibility to our common home. Contemplating the history of the road in front of us, will our planet still be beautiful in another 2000 years? With an offer of “gourmet sandwiches” on the menu (if only we’d got there early enough), there’s plenty of reason to head along to the old road in New Cross and sample the coffee while pondering our own impact on this interesting location.

 

¹ Life and Death of Coral Reefs, Charles Birkeland (Ed), Chapman & Hall, 1997

² Coral Reef Conservation, Ed Isabelle M Côté and John D Reynolds, Cambridge University Press, 2006

³ Chasing Coral, Netflix Documentary, 2017 (see trailer below)

4 Climate and the Oceans, Geoffrey K Vallis, Princeton University Press, 2012

Chasing Coral Trailer:

 

 

Environmentalism inside and out at Farmstand, Covent Garden

Farmstand Drury Lane

Farmstand on Drury Lane

How can we live sustainably, buying locally, being mindful of our ecological footprint and still drink coffee? A recent trip to Farmstand on Drury Lane revealed a café conscious of its environmental responsibilities, somewhere that is trying to help us to make a difference while still enjoying good food and great coffee. Is it possible for us to have our coffee and drink it? The people behind Farmstand certainly seem to think so.

The bare brick walls inside the spacious Farmstand have a certain rustic charm that serves to emphasise the environmental concerns of the café. A focus on local, free range meat and GM free vegetables means that this is definitely a place to be considered when looking for a lunch spot (though on this occasion, we only tried the coffee). Coffee is obviously not locally grown but is roasted by Workshop which is, relatively speaking, just down the road. Tea meanwhile comes from Postcard teas, just up the street. Water is complementary and is provided on tap so as to reduce plastic waste. The service was friendly and with such a bright and airy feel it is a very pleasant space to enjoy an Americano (though I imagine it is fairly crowded at lunchtimes). However, the Americano was served in a take-away cup (when I specified I was staying in). After a bit of digging on their website, I discovered that they use compostable and/or recyclable packaging sourced from London Bio Packaging. However, as it is not easy to either recycle nor to compost cups in regular waste collection (including recycling collections), it would be interesting to know details of how they dispose of their cups so as to know how they reconcile this with the otherwise careful environmental policy.

Interior vertical gardening

Green wall inside Farmstand

As you enter the café, there is a staircase on the left hand side. Potted plants are fixed to the railings making what seems to be almost a miniature green wall. A great way to get houseplants into a small space, this seemed a small scale example of the green walls that are starting to pop up around our cities. Green walls are vertical gardens. They can be grown either with climbing plants or with a second structure on the wall that supports the hundreds of plants. Along with an aesthetic appeal (certainly true of the structure at Farmstand), these green walls have environmental benefits too.

A big environmental problem in cities is particulate pollution from exhausts. Specifically, particulate matter that is less than 10 μm diameter (think Turkish coffee grind) can irritate the lungs and cause health problems for the city’s inhabitants. Particulates less than 2.5 μm diameter are even more dangerous to health. Worldwide, in 2012, 3.7 million early deaths were associated with poor air quality. In London, a 2010 study showed that approximately 4000 deaths per year were the result of exhaust fumes. Which brings us to the first reason that green walls in cities may be such a good thing: Plants adsorb the pollutants.

Green wall Singapore

A green wall at the Ocean Financial Centre in Singapore, Image shared under cc license (attrib. share alike) by smuconlaw.

Over a three month period, a study by Imperial College showed that a single green wall on Edgware Road tube station had removed 515 g of particulate matter from the atmosphere. Using a mix of plants on the wall was found to increase the air turbulence around the wall and so increase the adsorption of the pollutants. Of course, different plants performed differently (in terms of their ability to remove particulate matter from the air). One of the plants on the wall (Convolvulus cneorum) could take out up to 2.73±0.16 g/m² of particulate matter*. On the other hand, another plant on the wall (Hedera helix) took out much less, removing only 0.28±0.02 g/m². However, we know Hedera helix by another name: Ivy. And ivy plants can produce a lot of foliage per plant very quickly. Convolvulus cneorum on the other hand, is a small plant with small leaves. While its efficiency could be very high, the amount of pollution it can remove may not be as great as an ivy plant, purely as a consequence of its leaf size.

Which brings us to questions of aesthetics and practicality. The wall at Edgware Road is planted with many different types of plant in order to produce an effect that reduces pollution while also being good to look at. Similar walls have sprouted up all over the world. However, for short term projects that require a large amount of foliage quickly, planting ivy can be a good option as a pollutant remover. Some of the temporary structures built along Park Lane for the Crossrail project are now covered with ivy. Although I had initially thought that this was due to a lack of weeding, it turns out that this is part of a step towards pollution reduction in our cities (modelling data has indicated that these green walls can reduce the local particulate pollution by 10-20% depending on the geometry of the wall and the plant species growing).

A small step perhaps, but one that is definitely in the right direction. The green wall at Farmstand could therefore be said to illustrate the idea that if we are to make a difference to our external world, we must start by reforming our own interior one. We need to make green walls not green wash and we can start by paying attention to what we plant inside and out.

Farmstand is at 42 Drury Lane, WC2B 5AJ

*The study looked at particulate matter between 2.5 µm and 10µm diameter (i.e. PM(2.5)-PM(10)).

 

 

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle at Attendant

The outside of Attendant on Foley St

Attendant Coffee, Foley St

I was not initially going to do a cafe-physics review of Attendant. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the coffee, I did. I had a very well prepared V60 which went very well with a lovely chocolate brownie. Nor was it that there was nothing to see at Attendant. No, it was quite the opposite. Part of the point of the Attendant seems to be its location. You see, if you were not aware of it already, Attendant is to be found in a (no-longer-used), underground, gentlemen’s toilet. Although they have been thoroughly cleaned, various fixtures (19th century urinals and cisterns) remain in place. Modern (deliberate) graffiti adorns the walls as you walk in. Understandably, there are no windows to gaze out of in this café. It is, in many ways, a very interesting place to visit and the coffee is certainly worth a visit too. However, it is difficult to do a review which is, after all, about noticing something unusual, when the former use of this space is almost shouting at you. I thought about doing a review based on how the shape of the coffee cup can influence the flavour of  the coffee that you perceive. Yet somehow, writing a review on anything other than the fact that this is a re-use of an interesting space seemed, almost, perverse. So I left it. Until that is, UK Coffee Week came along.

UK Coffee Week raises awareness and money for Project Waterfall which in turn aims to help provide clean water and sanitation for coffee growing communities. Currently, Project Waterfall works in three countries, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ethiopia. In these countries a large number of the rural population lack basic access to drinking water while a greater number do not have access to sanitation facilities. Clearly this can lead to health problems. The World Health Organisation estimates that world wide, the drinking water of 1.8m people is contaminated with faeces, while 0.5 million people per year die from diarrhoeal diseases including cholera.

Interesting glassware at the Attendant

Interesting presentation. Coffee at the Attendant.

Perhaps, while sitting in cafés or having breakfast at home, we have a tendency to take water for granted. Certainly I will admit that I can. I’m sitting here writing this enjoying a great cup of coffee with a few biscuits both of which took water to produce. Beyond the obvious water in the kettle for the coffee and the water used for the dough for the biscuits, there is the ‘hidden’ water. The water used to irrigate the coffee crops and the wheat fields or to process the coffee cherry towards the green bean stage. The water used in generating the electricity used to bake the biscuits, or roast the coffee. The water used to clean the utensils between coffee roasts/biscuit batches so that we don’t get food poisoning. The list could go on. Indeed, the UN estimates that producing 1 cup of coffee requires 140 L of water. This figure though presumably cannot include the private water needs of the individuals who work on the coffee plantations. We all need water and we all need it to be clean.

So, in thinking about our water consumption (and the water consumption of those who help us to enjoy our coffee), we can do a few things during this coffee week 2016. Firstly, we could make a donation towards the work of Project Waterfall (here) or a similar charity that is working to provide clean water and adequate sanitation to those who don’t have it. Secondly, we could take the prompt from Attendant and start to think about where our water comes from. Why from Attendant? Well if you were living on the International Space Station or, to a lesser degree, in Singapore, this question may have an obvious answer. For the rest of us, we are often a little bit removed from direct water recycling, but it’s worth looking more closely at Singapore because they have developed a water strategy that may be of use for more of us in the future.

Reclaimed water NEWater, Singapore

30% of water supplied in Singapore is ‘reclaimed’. Where does your drinking water come from?

Singapore has a population of just over 5.5m (London: 8.6m) with a land area of 719.1 km². As an island, it is surrounded by water and so you may think that water is not a problem for the inhabitants of the city-state. But the water surrounding Singapore is the salt water of the sea and so not easily converted into drinking water. While looking for a solution towards a self-sufficient water supply, Singapore decided to try the recycling route. Through a scheme called NEWater, currently 30% of Singapore’s water supply is from  ‘reclaimed’ water (for reasons that may be obvious, they avoid the word ‘recycled’). The Singaporean authorities aim to make this 55% by 2060. Waste water produced in Singapore undergoes a process of micro-filtration (which takes out suspended particles), reverse osmosis and UV disinfection before being reintroduced to the water supply system. Although most of this reclaimed water is used for industrial processes, the reclaimed water can be added to Singapore’s reservoirs so that it will go into the drinking water supply.

A similar process is used on the International Space Station but there, as it is a closed environment, it is not just the waste water that goes down the drain that is ‘reclaimed’ but the water exhaled by the astronauts and the lab animals on the station. On Earth this would evaporate into the atmosphere, contribute to cloud formation and then rain back down closing the greater water cycle in that way. On the space station, the fact that it is a closed environment means that this moisture too can be ‘reclaimed’. By recycling the water in this way, the inhabitants of the space station avoid having to require too many costly water deliveries from the Earth.

Perhaps, while drinking our coffee (or tea, or even water) today, we can take five minutes to consider where our water comes from as well as considering whether those who contribute to our brew have adequate water supplies themselves. And as it is coffee week, here is that link again to Project Waterfall (Donation button at the bottom of the main Project Waterfall page). Enjoy your coffee.

Note added August 2017: It is with some regret that I have to say that Attendant is not a good place to go if you suffer from allergies. They have started serving almond milk and (according to a Twitter Direct Message received from the Attendant Team) do not adequately clean their steam wand between drinks so as to prevent cross contamination. Their advice to me was that I “should not have any hot drinks or food at our premises as we do not operate a nut free environment at our stores”. There are many good cafes to visit if you suffer from nut allergies, but please avoid this one (or just have a black coffee and enjoy the atmosphere).

 

 

Old and new at Sarnies, Singapore

Sarnies, Telok Ayer St, CBD, Singapore

Sarnies, Singapore

It is just possible that the name ‘Sarnies‘ may suggest a speciality at this cafe in Telok Ayer St. Singapore. And the sandwiches are definitely very good (I happened to visit one lunchtime), but don’t let this deceive you, the coffee is very good too and indeed Sarnies has been listed as one of the top 10 cafes to visit when in Singapore. Sarnies operates from an old style ‘heritage’ building near the central business district in Singapore. This style of “shop-house” used to be ubiquitous in Singapore but as Singapore has developed so the tall buildings of the “CBD” now tower over these remnants of Singapore’s past. The authorities though are keen to preserve their heritage and so many of the buildings have been carefully restored so that the exteriors are fairly faithful to the original. The interior has plenty of table space for you to enjoy your coffee (and sandwich of course) and watch the goings-on around you. Complementary water is available at the bar while you wait for your coffee and sandwich to be brought over to your table.

air vent, natural air circulation, air conditioning

The old air vent system and the new air con unit inside Sarnies in Singapore

Inside, you can see how the demands of modern living have changed the architecture of the shop-house. Above the door, and along the window were a series of vertical timber railings.  These date from the construction of the house and were presumably to assist with air ventilation in a time before air-conditioning. They work because hot air rises and so by putting an opening – a vent – near the ceiling, the  hot air in the building will rise and leave the interior to be replaced by the cooler (it is never cool in Singapore) air from outside. Unfortunately, the temperature in Singapore during the day time is in the 28-33C region and so this method of cooling is not as efficient as air conditioning which is why the vents are now covered in glass. The air-conditioned interior also means that the door of Sarnies is kept closed at all times, ensuring that the air conditioning is as efficient and cool as possible (though seats are available outside should you want to sit in the heat).

coffee at Sarnies Singapore

At the end of the day, it’s all about the coffee

Air conditioning of course needs a lot of energy in order to work. The basics of air conditioning work on the same principles as those that cool your coffee: When a liquid evaporates into a gas it takes energy from its environment and thereby cools it (think about alcohol – or sweat – evaporating from your hand). The issue with air conditioners is that this is a continuous process. The liquid that is evaporated within the air-con unit cooling the room is compressed and re-condensed in the air-con unit outside the shop, in a process that consumes electricity and generates heat which is transferred to the environment outside the shop. The process uses a lot of energy (and therefore generates a lot of carbon dioxide emissions), indeed one organisation in Singapore calculated that more than 60% of their energy consumption on one campus was due to air conditioning.

As cities use a lot of energy, clever design and engineering of the buildings in cities can be used to decrease the carbon dioxide emissions of cities and so help to mitigate the problems of climate change. The C40 is a group of more than 75 of the world’s largest cities that work together to find ways to use urban design to combat environmental problems. Perhaps it is in developing more energy efficient lighting systems or, in the case of the UWCSEA in Singapore, designing their new buildings so that they use air conditioning more efficiently and therefore less wastefully, both in terms of CO2 emissions and in economic terms.

As I was sitting enjoying my Sandwich and coffee in Sarnies, a customer coming into the cafe left the door open. As the hot and humid air started to blow in from outside, the woman sitting near the door closed it to keep the cold in. This small gesture, almost completely opposite to that which I experienced in winter in London last year, helped to ensure that the air conditioning unit did not have to work harder to keep the cafe cool. A small action but one that helps save energy and so the planet, even if just a little bit. If only more of us did this.

Sarnies is at 136 Telok Ayer St. Singapore.

Seeing the trees for the wood at OJO Coffee, Bangsar, KL

coffees on display at OJO

OJO Coffee, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur

It is very easy to sit for a long time watching the people and the surroundings at OJO Coffee in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Initially I had thought that this medium-sized café with an impressive number of power points dotted around it was an independent. However similarities with CoffeaCoffee around the corner and a couple of other clues (CoffeaCoffee t-shirts) suggest that it is actually part of the CoffeaCoffee chain, something that was confirmed when I asked the barista. However, the standard of coffee in this chain should prompt some of the smaller independents to up their game a bit (and certainly all of the UK based chains). Not content with just serving the typical coffees of ‘latte’, ‘cappuccino’ etc. (which are made using their own blend), OJO’s additionally serves about 15 types of single origin coffee made with your choice of method (Hario V60, Aeropress or French press). For a while this summer I became a bit of a regular at OJO and so I would particularly recommend the Indonesian Sumatran prepared by V60, but with so many coffees to choose from (from the relatively local Indonesians to South American coffees from much further afield) there is plenty to try at this café.

wooden mosaic

The wall made of wood at OJO

The interior of OJOs is decorated with many types of wood. Different cuts of wood are made into a sort of wood mosaic on the wall while the tables are made using several types of wood so as to give a symbolism about the Sun that is a type of motif of the café. Much of the floor is wood too and so this got me thinking about the rainforests in this country. Malaysia has a rich variety of wildlife and forest, it is home to the Orangutan as well as many other species. Teak trees that can be used for more expensive furniture grow along the roadside. Much of this timber can be obtained sustainably and in a way that respects the rainforest and I am certainly not suggesting that the wood in OJOs was anything but sustainable. However, perhaps inevitably, there are many pressures on these invaluable forests. Some of these pressures have, in the recent past, resulted in significant deforestation. One such pressure is that of palm oil.

Palm oil is a massively useful commodity. It is now used in food products from margarine to biscuits to raisins (surprising but true, check the ingredients list of a packet of raisins) and non-food products such as soaps. It is literally everywhere. Both Malaysia and its neighbour, Indonesia, have profited enormously from growing and exporting palm oil. Unfortunately, at times the rainforest is cleared to make way for the palm oil plantations. As it is easier to burn felled trees to clear the land rather than to painstakingly pull the roots up by hand, the cleared forest is burned. But the ground is not any ordinary soil, the ground is often peat based which means that the fires on the surface penetrate deep below the ground and produce phenomenal amounts of smoke.

If at this point you were wondering where the ‘physics’ bit of this café-physics review is, I assure you it is coming. It is indeed linked to this environmental story and to OJOs, please keep with me.

Each year, parts of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are enveloped by a haze produced by this burning peat land (It made the BBC in 2013 when it was particularly bad, but some haze is present for a few weeks every year). Haze has the appearance of thick fog but smells of smoke. At times, visibility can be reduced such that the tops of nearby tall buildings are obscured. Each time land needs clearing for new palm oil plantations, this smoke is produced. The haze can be reduced by local weather patterns but on many days, the haze is cleared by the torrential rains that can occur in this part of the world.

the haze is coming in

L-R: The haze comes in over part of KL in 2013 (series of 3 pictures)

It is commonly said that ‘rain clears the air’ but this is not completely true. It is not the raindrops themselves that somehow wash the air free of the dust of the haze, it is the vortices that form behind them*. Just as a spoon dragged through coffee produces vortices behind it, so a raindrop falling through the air forms vortices in its wake. The size of these vortices will depend on the size of the drop and the speed at which it falls through the air; a tea spoon and a dessert spoon pulled at different speeds through the coffee similarly produce different forms of vortex. So the amount of dust that is ‘sucked in’ and falls to the ground will depend on the type of rain that falls. Perhaps if you are in Malaysia, Singapore or Indonesia when this haze is present, you could make a study of which sort of rain clears the air most effectively. I have an idea but not the evidence to see if the idea is correct, it would be interesting to know what you think.

As I left OJO one afternoon, the rain had started to come down. The rain, or at least the vortices behind the raindrops, cleared some of the haze that had been around earlier. It is a temporary solution to a longstanding problem. A more long lasting solution may be to start (or continue) asking manufacturers of those biscuits you are eating: just how sustainable is the palm oil they are using?

OJO is at No 23, Jalan Telawi 3, KL

* JR Saylor and BK Jones, Physics of Fluids, 17, 031706 (2005)