air valves

Time out

Perhaps an unusual post but there is so much opportunity to stop, think and notice at the moment. Whether it is relaxing in a café with a cold brew or sipping a take-away in a park. There is time to slow down and ponder. Here are three points that have been puzzling recently. What do you think? Perhaps you have other things that you ponder while sitting in a café? Let me know either in the comments section below, on twitter or on Facebook.

oat milk, kone, filtering

Oat milk filtering through the Kone filter – but what does oat milk tell us about Brownian motion, molecular ‘reality’ and the nature of a scientific theory?

Molecules, the atmosphere and oat milk.

On pouring home-made oat milk into a cup of black tea, it is noticeable that a large part of the oat milk is dense and falls to the bottom of the cup (before being stirred by the turbulence in the tea). A similar phenomenon is found in the rarefaction of gases through the height of the atmosphere and in the distribution of dye in water paint. This latter effect was used to establish the existence of molecules back in 1910. The idea that Brownian motion was caused by molecules had been problematic because there was no way to see molecules in a liquid producing the Brownian motion. The theory linking the two was only developed properly in the early twentieth century. What makes a scientific theory? Is it legitimate to postulate something that cannot currently be observed experimentally?

Packing value

Why does roasted coffee often come in plastic packaging that is unrecyclable and not very reusable? What could prompt a move to a more circular economy. Would it be possible to recycle plastic bottles into coffee ‘boxes’ with an air valve at the bottle top (see pictures). This would increase the recyclability without seeming to affect the taste of the coffee?

bottle, coffee bottle, coffee box, coffee packaging

An idea for a circular economy suitable coffee packaging? Recycled plastic bottles as airtight coffee containers.

Related to that, what are your coffee values? Do you favour taste and aroma, traceability, sustainability? Does the packaging that your coffee arrives in feature? Which of these is more important to you? Does the way you drink coffee reflect this?

Footfall past a café

How many people are walking past the café you are sitting in each minute? How many does that translate to per day (accounting for differences in day/night footfall)? Assuming the paving stones remain the same, how long would it be until the successive footprints of all these people caused erosion of the pavement surface? What are the implications of this for the geological features near you?

Whatever you think about in a café or while drinking a coffee, enjoy your time taken out to think. Perhaps you will notice something (or realise something) very interesting or noteworthy and if you have any thoughts on any of the above do let me know either in the comments, on Twitter or on Facebook.

 

Good news on coffee bag recycling & re-using air valves

air valve, plastic, environmental coffee packaging

Air valves and metallised plastic are common packaging materials for freshly roasted coffee.

Hopefully we’re all trying to reduce our environmental impact but there are things that we can’t seem to avoid. There is the saying “reduce-reuse-recycle”, but how do we do that with coffee bags? Can we reduce? How would we reuse? And recycling has, until now, seemed impossible.

The problem is that in order to keep freshly roasted (and particularly freshly ground) coffee fresh, it is packed in metallised plastic bags normally with an air valve. Metallised plastic is not recyclable in the general waste stream and so the air valve, even if it is made of a technically recyclable plastic material, is unlikely to be practically recycled.

There are questions as to whether it is necessary to package coffee in this way. A blind taste test by the Nottingham based coffee roaster Roasting House showed that, if your coffee was freshly roasted, a (recycled and recyclable) paper bag was a good option for packaging. Although the flavour profile was different for coffee stored in a bag with an air valve compared with the paper bag after 1 week of storage, the benefit to the taste did not seem to be worth the environmental cost if the coffee is delivered fresh to the customer (within 24 hours or so).

However, perhaps the roaster that you buy coffee from prefers to use the traditional metallised bags with air valves. What can be done there? Fortunately, there has recently been some great news on this front. Has Bean coffee have teamed up with TerraCycle to offer recycling of Has Bean coffee bags. TerraCycle are a company that specialise in recycling (or reusing or up-cycling) hard to recycle materials, such as coffee bags and coffee capsules. TerraCycle takes materials such as coffee bags and either repurposes them (TerraCycle’s website mentions repurposing juice pouches by sewing them together to make rucksacks) or pelletising them to be made into other plastic products.

Earth from space, South America, coffee

Our common home. Can we keep our coffee habit while keeping our home safe for future generations?
The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

Sadly (but understandably), to take advantage of Has Bean’s offer to recycle your coffee bags you have to be a Has Bean customer. However, all is not lost. If you are not a Has Bean customer you can purchase your own recycling box from TerraCycle for coffee bags (prices start from £73*) or coffee capsules (prices start from £72.36*). Perhaps it is something out of the range of the general consumer but it may be something that smallish coffee roasters with a network of cafés could consider stocking? Do you regularly buy your coffee from a cafe? Why not ask them if they will consider TerraCycle? If you drink coffee from larger companies such as, Tassimo, L’OR and Kenco, there are (free) collection points for their packaging nationwide.

However, what if you don’t buy coffee from either Roasting House or Has Bean nor have easy access to a TerraCycle recycling box? There is one more option in the 3-r’s: re-use. To consider this question, I’ve been experimenting recently with a coffee bag with an air-valve (left over from Roasting House’s experiment that they were happy to send me, thanks Roasting House). Could the air valve be re-used as a valve for fermentation?

Lacto-Fermentation has been in the news a lot recently for the health benefits that it may have. However it is also an interesting and easy way of preserving almost any vegetable. The idea is simple. Mix the vegetables to be preserved in some salt water, store them in a jar and leave them for a few days. That’s it. The salt kills the harmful bacteria while allowing the bacteria that is good for us, the lactobacillus, to thrive. These lactobacillus also produce lactic acid that preserves the vegetables for many weeks while giving them that slightly sour taste of sauerkraut and kimchi.

lacto fermentation, airvalve, air valve, reduce reuse recycle

Can you use coffee bag air valves as one-way lids for fermenting vegetables?

A problem with fermentation seems to be that if you tightly seal the vegetables in a jar, the build up of gas during the fermentation process could mean that the mix explodes. If you open the jar every day to let the gas escape, you may well end up with mouldy cabbage rather than delightfully acidic sauerkraut. This is where the coffee bag air valve comes in. Could you replace the lid with a coffee air-valve and so allow the gas to escape while not having to open the lid every day?

Replacing the glass lid of a Kilner Jar with a lid made from a ring of cardboard (lined with the coffee packaging) and then the coffee bag with air valve seemed to work at first. As had been predicted, my first attempt at fermented spring greens (where I opened the lid each day) had resulted in mouldy cabbage. Successful fermentation came when the glass lid was replaced with the air-valve construction. Could there be a re-use for the air valve?

fermented cabbage

Fermented spring greens. These vegetables have been fermented with salt.

To check whether the valve worked as planned, I used it as a lid for a jar containing bicarbonate of soda and vinegar. As anyone who has played with these substances for making rockets or model volcanoes will know, combining these two substances produces a lot of gas. Again, nothing exploded. However, sadly (?) nothing exploded either when I sealed the air valve with sellotape and repeated the bicarbonate of soda/vinegar experiment. A quick inspection revealed air-gaps between the cardboard ring and the air valve lid and while these could be sealed quite easily, the air valve never seemed to be the primary outlet valve for this set-up.

So, a failure? A null result? Perhaps, but perhaps not. The air valve structure did mean that I was confident that I didn’t have to open the lid on the fermenting cabbage and the cabbage did not turn mouldy before it fermented. Unfortunately, it is hard for me to eat enough fermented cabbage to justify having repeated this experiment enough times yet to be certain! So this is where you come in. Why not have a go at making your own sauerkraut, kimchi or indeed any pickled vegetable (apart from potatoes apparently). Re-use that air valve while reducing food waste. If you do so, please do let me know your design and how it worked (and of course any good fermented vegetable recipes). Alternatively, if you have found another use for those old air valves, or know another coffee roasting company that is recycling its packaging or making efforts to move to  more sustainable packaging, please do let me know in the comment section below, on Twitter or on Facebook.

Enjoy your coffee and your lactobacillus.

*prices correct at time of writing (18th July 2017). Please check TerraCycle’s website for most recent prices. If you are outside the UK, the international website of TerraCycle can be found here.

Would you like plastic in that?

Straws with viscous liquid (milkshake) in them

Do you need that straw?

Plastic Free July starts in just a few days time. Each year this initiative encourages us to eliminate, or at least reduce, our use of single use plastic throughout the month of July. It is a great way to increase our awareness of our plastic use by attempting not to use any.

There are numerous reasons that we may want to reduce our plastic consumption. In addition to the problems of litter associated with plastic waste, there are problems for wildlife caused by ingesting our rubbish. Even if we dispose of it responsibly, plastic takes a long time to degrade. It is thought provoking to consider that the take-away cup that we discarded yesterday may still be lying in some landfill site years after we have forgotten about drinking that coffee. So what can be done about it and what are the specific issues for coffee drinkers?

air valve, plastic, environmental coffee packaging

Air valves and metallised plastic are common packaging materials for freshly roasted coffee, but can we avoid them?

One way to start to reduce our dependence on single use plastic is to understand how much we actually use on a day by day basis. Registering for a plastic free July is one way of doing this. As a result of attempting a Plastic Free July last year, I have found some plastic-free habits that have stuck with me all year. Loose leaf tea is one such improvement (teabags can also contain plastic). Although initially it seemed a bit of a pain to use a basket to brew the tea, as I kept with the habit I found it easy to compost the tea leaves after making a brew and the tea tastes better too. Things like shampoo bars and tooth ‘paste’ tablets (from Lush) have also been better and longer lasting than similar products packaged in plastic bottles.  Although some plastic habits are hard to break, living as plastic free as possible for one month did deepen my awareness of the plastic that I take for granted.

But perhaps living plastic free for a month is too daunting? An alternative challenge sadly emphasises just how linked coffee drinking can be to single-use plastic consumption. The Top 4 challenge asks you to eliminate, just for July, the target take-away items. Of these 4, at least 2 (and arguably 3) are linked to coffee drinking or cafés. The top 4 are plastic bags, bottles, take-away coffee cups and straws. Could you avoid these for just one month? Take the challenge.

blue tits, mint water, mint infusion, mint leaves in water

Enjoying a glass of water in a cafe can be better than running with a bottle of water anyway.

If you are ready to go plastic-free in your coffee habits, here’s a list of where we frequently encounter single-use plastic while drinking in cafés or even at home, together with suggestions of how to avoid the plastic where appropriate. Please let me know in the comments section below if you can think of further examples (and how you are avoiding them either in July or more permanently).

  • Disposable take-away coffee cups – get and use a re-usable one. You can find a helpful comparison of different types of re-usable coffee cups on Brian’s Coffee Spot.
  • Tea bags – yes they can contain plastic, see more information here. To avoid them, get hold of a metal tea basket, or even a tea pot and strainer and start investigating loose leaf tea.
  • Water bottles/soft drinks bottles – if in a café, why not enjoy the moment by staying with a glass of water rather than grabbing a bottle? If you are in a hurry though, a flask (such as klean-kanteen) is a great investment. In some parts of London (and perhaps elsewhere?) chilled tap water is available on tap for use in re-usable bottles
  • Air valves on your roasted coffee bag – do you really need these? The Nottingham based coffee roaster, Roasting House, did a taste test on freshly roasted coffee packaged with and without air valves, you can read their results here. If the coffee roaster that you normally purchase coffee from insists on using air-valves, why not write to them to request that they reconsider their packaging or try a more environmentally conscious roasting company to see how their coffee compares?
  • Coffee packaging – What type of material did the last bag of coffee that you purchased come in? Chances are it was metallised plastic, why not find a roaster with alternative packaging? Who knows, you may find another great coffee roaster to add to the ones that you buy from.
  • Straws – why would you use these anyway?
  • Milk bottles – Some companies still supply milk in glass bottles, otherwise you could consider non-dairy milks that can be home-made such as oat or almond. Some cafés also offer home-made non-dairy milks which would be a way of going plastic free while enjoying a latte in a café.
  • Cakes/sandwiches packaging – in larger chains these may come in packaging. However, if they are coming in packaging then they are not likely to be that fresh, find somewhere else with better cakes or sandwiches or make your own!
  • Spoons/cutlery
  • Packaging for sugar etc – ditching the sugar is supposed to be good for you anyway. If you cannot resist sweetening your coffee, try to find a sugar that is packaged in paper rather than plastic.
  • Washing up liquid – switching to a re-fillable washing up liquid reduces (but does not eliminate entirely) plastic waste.

Good luck if you take the challenge. There are still a few days left to plan how you can reduce the plastic in your life before the start of Plastic Free July 2017. Please do let me know how your attempts to be plastic free go and whether you find, as I did last year, that you enjoy your tea (or even coffee) more when you do so.

 

 

Plastic free coffee?

a take away cup

There’s plenty of plastic in coffee & it’s not just in the obvious take-away cups.

So we’ve probably all done it, walked into a coffee shop and purchased a take-away coffee while in a rush to get elsewhere. It’s the moment that our desired commitment to environmentally responsible behaviour clashes with our (briefly stronger) desire for sustenance on the move. Using a keep-cup (or similar) would avoid this bit of single-use plastic but even so, is this the only plastic that you encounter when you enjoy a coffee? Actually, once you start to notice it, you will find single-use plastic in a number of surprising places.

An initiative called “Plastic Free July” aims to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of single-use plastic as well as to challenge us to do something about it. So, partly as an educational exercise, I signed up to the Plastic Free July, not because plastic is always bad, (there are arguably some very good, even environmental, reasons to use plastic, see below) but because plastic is a substance that takes a long time to break down once discarded and we use it so often even without thinking. So, before revealing just how easy – or hard – it has been to eliminate single use plastic from everyday life for the past couple of weeks, it’s worth taking a look at the problems, benefits and occurrence of plastic in our lives. Particularly while we are enjoying a tea or coffee.

Some definitions

Plastic comes in many forms and Plastic Free July does not aim to avoid all of them. It is single use plastic that is the concern: Bits of plastic wrapping, plastic bags, aroma valves. Things that are used once and then discarded. Can you avoid using these, even for one week or even just one day? Why not sign up and commit yourself to trying to find out.

Plastic Problems

Earth from space, South America, coffee

One planet. One home.
The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

Two of the major issues with our use of plastics are the problems of littering and that of degradability, particularly when that litter finds its way into the oceans. Between 60-80% of marine litter is plastic. It can cause the deaths of marine life not just through its being eaten (thereby causing internal injury or malnutrition), but also by entangling sea creatures and so causing death through drowning or other injury. Moreover, the bits of plastic that float around our oceans can provide a home to various micro-organisms transporting them around the world to areas of the planet that they would not ordinarily have been able to reach.

Nor is it just a problem for the oceans. Plastic takes many centuries to decompose and although there are plastics that decompose more quickly (oxo-biodegradable and compostable, more details below), clearly there is a need to reduce the amount of plastic we throw away. A further problem with plastics is that their manufacture requires the use of a limited resource. 4-5% of global petroleum production is used for the manufacture of plastic∗. But nor is it just petroleum products, the thing that makes carrier bags opaque is an additive called TiO2. It is therefore somewhat sobering to realise that 25% of the plastics manufactured in the US are used in packaging* and 37% of the plastics produced are for disposable items. Clearly we have room to live less wastefully here.

Why it’s not all bad

paper bag roasted coffee

Is it better to swap to paper packaging? It may depend on what problem you’re trying to solve.

Although there is a big problem with plastic waste, a different environmental problem has arguably benefited from our use of plastic packaging: The greenhouse effect. Consider the way that ground coffee is often sold in a supermarket. Frequently the coffee comes in metallised plastic packaging complete with plastic air-valve (or aroma valve). Alternatively, coffee can be packaged in a steel can (as used by a well known coffee roasting blend). Steel is 100% recyclable and so is good for the degradability/litter problem. However it is heavy and cylindrical. This means that to transport an equivalent amount of coffee in steel cans costs more, both in terms of economic and environmental costs, than the lighter, less bulky plastic of the alternative*.

What about paper packaging? It is interesting that even here, the situation is not clear-cut. A study concerning the greenhouse gas emissions involved with the manufacture and transportation of different sorts of shopping bag had what may be a surprising conclusion. In order to achieve a lower CO2 footprint than a standard plastic shopping bag re-used once as a bin-liner, a paper shopping bag would have to be re-used 4x while a cloth bag would have to be re-used a staggering 173x. You may well argue (as I have) that it is still better, environmentally, to buy your coffee in paper packaging, but if thinking purely in terms of the CO2 emissions, you may want to try to find a way to re-use the coffee bag a few times.

Lastly, the litter and degradation problem need not be insurmountable. In recent years, various manufacturers have sought to make plastic degrade more rapidly than ordinary plastic. Oxo-biodegradable plastic has additives in it that, when exposed to UV light, eg. from the Sun, help the (otherwise perfectly ordinary) plastic to completely biodegrade. The process takes a controllable amount of time that can even be as little as 2 years. Compostable plastic too is being developed but there should be caveats on the name. “Compostable” is defined as “industrially compostable” (meaning it degrades if held at a steady 58C), it does not necessarily mean that it composts in your compost heap.

There’s plastic in my coffee?

air valve, plastic, environmental coffee packaging

Aroma valves: are they worth the environmental cost?

So, we’re aware of the problem and want to do something about it but how much is single use plastic really a problem for coffee (or tea) drinkers? Take-away cups are the obvious source of single-use plastic, but plastic can be found in many places as we enjoy our brew. If we are having coffee in a café (even if it is not take out), how about the spoon for the sugar, plates for the cakes or even wrapping around the chocolate bars? If you drink your coffee with milk (cow, soy or almond) it will often come in plastic bottles, yes these could be recycled but would it be better if they were made from something else? (It is an interesting fact that more plastic was sent for recycling in the UK than was used by consumers†).

An easy way of reducing your plastic use would be to use your own mug as a take-away cup (keep-cups for example are designed to be of the correct size for the cafe industry). And there may even be other advantages to you in bringing along your own cup: For Danny S Parker, taking along his own cup for his coffee allows him to better enjoy the coffee, as he says “If you choose a wide mouth cup… the involvement of the nose in the taste on the tongue will accentuate flavour and enjoyment.” Reducing your plastic consumption could mean that even a take-away coffee can provide a moment to enjoy your brew.

What about if you only ever drank coffee at home? Where’s the plastic there? Well, how do you buy your coffee? Do you buy from a coffee roaster that insists on using bags with ‘aroma valves’? These valves cannot be recycled currently and so inevitably contribute to plastic waste. Is this packaging really necessary for the way that you buy your coffee? (See here for an interesting taste comparison of coffee stored in bags with/without aroma valves). Meanwhile, the coffee itself is frequently supplied in a metallised plastic packaging, does the roaster you buy from try to minimise the environmental cost by using recycled/oxo-bio/compostable/paper packaging? Why not ask them?

And tea drinkers, you do not get away with it! There’s plastic involved in tea drinking too. Tea bags are often supplied in cardboard packaging that is then wrapped in plastic, and even loose leaf tea can come in paper bags with plastic windows or metallised plastic bags. Worryingly, even tea bags themselves can occasionally be made of a plastic material that does not break down in a composting bin‡. Plastic truly gets everywhere.

An honest appraisal of how my plastic free July has gone so far

San Sebastian via Aeropress

Giving up plastic can mean taking the opportunity to enjoy your coffee properly.

So, nearly halfway through July and my attempts at being “plastic-free” are mixed. Some things are relatively easy to change, a metal tea strainer and loose leaf tea replaced the tea bags when they ran out. The coffee I use at home comes in paper packaging from Roasting House. Other things such as bottles of shampoo could be replaced by shampoo bars (like a bar of soap only for shampoo). Even the soy milk I use at home was easily exchanged for a home-made oat-milk.

However, some things have been difficult. Shopping particularly is not very plastic-free friendly. Although there is advice on taking containers with you in order to buy meat, fish or cheese from the counter in a plastic-free way, I am not sure that this would work in my local supermarket and anyway, they have to weigh the meat/fish/cheese which will involve them putting it on a plastic bag on the scales. Just because I do not walk away with plastic in my hand does not mean that I am not responsible for its use. Cooking oil too frequently comes in plastic bottles and, given the increased weight and therefore transportation costs involved in glass packaging, perhaps this is an example of a good use of plastic. An attempt to move away from aluminium-lined, plastic tube toothpaste to plastic-free tooth tabs has been complicated by the fact that the tooth-tabs are supplied in a plastic bottle. And I’m afraid that I am partial to a bottle of beer occasionally even though they do have plastic lined metal caps.

So, my plastic-free July has been a bit mixed but certainly not single use plastic free (so far). But, it has been worth it in order to really see just how ubiquitous single-use plastic is in our day to day living. Is it possible for you to cut down just a little bit on the plastic that you use every day? Why not sign up to Plastic Free July and see where your challenges lie.

If you are already signed up to Plastic Free July or if you are trying to live in a plastic-reducing way generally I’d love to hear how it’s going. Also if you have an opinion on the use of plastic in the coffee industry (either in cafes or by roasters) do let me know.

*Plastics and the Environment, AL Andrady (Ed), Wiley-Interscience, 2003

† The study was done in 2006.

‡ I was alerted to this initially by a friend’s comment that certain pyramid-type tea bags never seemed to break down on their compost heap.