Plastic free July is nearly with us once again, prompting us to look again at the sustainability (or not) of the coffee we enjoy each day. Whether we drink our coffee at home or in a cafe, it is easy to see plastic items associated with the coffee. In a cafe there are the take-away, disposable, cups, together with the cartons of milk and perhaps, plastic cutlery. Even at home, we see the plastic packaging in the coffee bags that we buy or receive through the post and perhaps with the milk (or mylk) cartons that we ourselves are using. Some have argued that given that we are in a climate emergency, at this point we need to focus on the most urgent problem of all, the reduction of greenhouse gases. These are valid concerns and it is certainly true that the emissions costs associated with packaging and transporting items using low mass containers like plastic are lower than if the same product were transported in heavier, but more obviously sustainable, materials such as glass. Should this stop us from trying to reduce our plastic consumption and what hope is there that new technology can help us? These are questions we may like to ponder with a cup of coffee.
What is the problem for those of us who mostly brew and drink coffee at home? Here, the major sources of plastic packaging are likely to be in the bags that the coffee arrives in and in the packaging of the milk that we may use to accompany our coffee. Many speciality roasted coffee beans now arrive in LDPE plastic packaging. This is recyclable although most household collection services will not be able to process it. Fortunately there are places that you can take your coffee bags for recycling such as supermarket plastic bag recycling points. Alternatively, some coffee suppliers or roasters (eg. Dog & Hat) will offer to arrange recycling for you via Terracycle if you return the empty bags to them.
Another popular packaging material for coffee bags is “compostable” packaging. This falls into two types, the compostable according to EN13432 and packaging that is fully home compostable (occasionally certified with the Vincotte OK Compost label). You can read more about the relative compostability of each type of packaging here, but it is worth noting that the majority of us do not have access to an industrial composting facility, nor can these bags be recycled with other plastic. Packaging that is only certified to EN13432 will not compost easily in a home composting environment. Be very careful when buying “compostable” packaging. Less commonly, coffee could arrive in cans, paper or even (in the case of supermarket instant coffee) glass packaging. These can be easily recycled but may have higher carbon emissions costs associated with them, both in terms of the cost of transport and in terms of the cost of manufacture of the packaging.
Milk cartons are often recyclable or even, in the case of glass milk bottles, reusable and then recyclable. Those of us using non-dairy ‘mylks’ could try to eliminate the plastic altogether by buying oats or soy beans from a zero waste shop and then making our own according to recipes you can find online.
So it seems that we have a problem: we still have a lot of waste material when we drink coffee. Can technology help us? Recently, a new form of plant based ‘plastic’ material has been demonstrated. This material is able to be formed and used in a similar way to commercial plastics and may be suitable for food packaging. Not only that, but the material is fully degradable, though more details are needed here before we can know whether this is degradable as we would understand it or degradable under certain conditions similar to the ‘industrially compostable’ packaging. Nonetheless it is highly encouraging that work is being done on materials that will provide the low carbon footprint and food-safety aspect of plastic combined with the reduced problems of landfill waste. While still a few years off, such technology may provide a longer term solution to our current waste/emissions problem.
Which leaves us with the initial objection. Given the state of our climate emergency with regards to greenhouse gases, should we really be concentrating on reducing greenhouse gas emissions rather than on reducing plastic waste? Fortunately, there are choices that you can make that will reduce the carbon cost of coffee, regardless of the packaging it arrives in. There are some well researched and thoughtful articles available about the carbon footprint of coffee and what you can do, including this series from United Baristas. However, it is worth noting that even if we do decide to prioritise greenhouse gas emissions, recent work has shown that the methane emissions of plastic as it degrades has been previously under appreciated. Perhaps what we can do is make choices that reflect our concern for the planet that we call home. Clearly this means reducing as far as practicable our greenhouse gas emissions, but it also means living as sustainably/zero waste as possible. We each need to find the balance that is suitable for the situation that we each find ourselves in. A significant benefit of Plastic free July is that it gives us an opportunity to examine how much of our lives are made easier, or in some cases possible, by the use of plastic, in short, how much we rely on it. It is not necessarily about changing our lives forever, though maybe we will find some changes good to carry on with, but becoming more aware of the problems that we really have.
Have you signed up for Plastic Free July? What are you doing to reduce the environmental impact you have while still enjoying a cup of coffee? And do you have a good recipe for oat milk? Do let me know either on Twitter, Facebook or in the comments below. In the meanwhile, a happy Plastic Free July to you all.