It’s always great to find an independent café selling good coffee (and cake) while giving something back to the community. It’s a reason to seek out small businesses rather than chains. Kahaila café on Brick Lane absolutely falls into this category. Although I had visited Kahaila previously, on that occasion the beigels (almost) next door were ‘calling’ and I did not give this space the time it deserved. This time however, the beigel shop had come first allowing us plenty of time to sit and ponder in this spacious café.
I had an espresso (toffee notes) together with a raspberry topped vegan chocolate cake (confidently nut free). There were a large variety of alternative cakes on offer at the counter along with cold drinks should you want them in summer. The espresso was a very enjoyable accompaniment to the cake (or should the cake be an accompaniment to the coffee?). The large room at the back of the café offered plenty of seating and was well lit by sunlight streaming through a window built into the roof.
One thing that immediately makes this café different from many others, is the fact that there is a donation box on the wall. Information cards on the table tops explain that Kahaila works as a charity providing education and support to women prisoners, helping women who have experienced abuse or are vulnerable in other ways to learn skills in a bakery and also offering a safe house for women who have been victim to exploitation and trafficking. All in all a café in which it would be good to spend more time (if only it were closer!). And assuming that the cakes are from the bakery, it forms a giving-circle with some great bakes on offer.
The vegan chocolate cake was a case in point. Beautifully presented, balanced in taste, in a perfectly sized portion to enjoy with a coffee. Ordinarily cakes require butter and eggs, how did the bakers manage it? Of course, a recipe was not given at the counter, nor would it necessarily have been particularly helpful to answer the question. Because the answer, if one exists, is a mix of their experimentation with flavours and textures together with an advancing knowledge of what each cake ingredient does.
Consider the egg yolk. In addition to adding mouth feel and texture to the cake or biscuit, the yolk contains emulsifying agents, such as lecithin, which act to stabilise suspensions of oil in water¹. With a hydrophobic section at one end of the molecule and a hydrophilic section elsewhere, the presence of lecithin molecules in the mixture prevents droplets of oil from grouping together and coalescing so as to separate into oil/water layers. By experimenting with non-egg based lecithin, a baker can combine different flavours and textures to produce a vegan cake.
A few years ago, a somewhat similar problem was vexing materials scientists: how to remove toxic lead from piezoelectric devices. Piezoelectric devices expand or contract when they are subjected to an electric field. This makes them useful for moving mechanisms such as watches and even as a way to open/close hot water valves in coffee machines. The problem was that one of the best piezoelectric materials we had was lead zirconate titanate (or PZT for short). In order to make the PZT material, the lead had to be sourced in quite large quantities and yet, being toxic and environmentally damaging, it was considered advantageous (even necessary) to remove the lead.
However, just like the egg yolk in cookie recipes, you cannot just remove it and produce the same sort of effect in the finished product. You need to understand what role the lead was playing in order to be able to substitute it properly and even then, the effect may not be as good as the original ingredient (without some tweaking elsewhere in the recipe also). Consequently a lot of research has been undertaken in order to find new piezoelectric materials and to understand them so as to optimise the piezoelectric effect. Partly this involves adding the new ingredients slowly to understand their role. Partly it involves changing the growth conditions(somewhat equivalent to the baking temperature) in the crystals that are made. Always it involves experimenting and understanding the role that different ingredients play in our final devices.
Research is still ongoing to find a good substitute for lead in piezoelectric devices. But it goes to show that there are many connections between diverse areas of our experience. Unlike research into piezoelectric materials though, the advantage in experimenting with cakes is that the test of the result is in the eating. Now to experiment with some biscuit recipes…
Kahaila is at 135 Brick Lane, E1 6SB
¹On Food and Cooking, the science and lore of the kitchen, Harold McGee
At the top end of Lamb’s Conduit Street there is an unassuming café in a fairly modern building at the corner of Long Yard. In recent weeks I had been hearing a lot about Redemption Roasters and their café. First came the review by Double Skinny Macchiato, then various comments on Twitter, in Caffeine magazine and finally, an article in the FT. In an ideal world, it seems to me that cafés can act as seeds towards forming a better society. Local and independent, a friendly place where you can chat with the baristas (or café owners), and so where communities can form and develop. All that I had heard about Redemption Roasters café fitted, in some way, into this ideal which meant that it was not going to be long before I headed towards Bloomsbury and tried this new café.
Plenty of seating could be found inside the café, with tables of two or four and benches around the space. The counter was immediately in front of us as we went through the door and the friendly barista took our order (long black and soya hot chocolate, what else?) while we took our seats. There were a fair few staff in the café when we visited, so many in fact that we weren’t initially sure who were staff and who were customers. Nonetheless, their joviality transformed the café’s fairly austere decor more into the feel of the welcoming space of a living room.
Having taken our seats and started to look around, we found that much could be said about the science in this café. From the SMEG refrigerator and individual radiators to the light reflection off individual sugar crystals in a glass on the table. Moreover, when our drinks arrived, the reflection of the (blue) saucer in the hot chocolate glass made it appear as if the hot chocolate were layered. In fact it was an optical illusion caused by the way our minds process the colour blue in shadows, more on that in this great article about colour, Goethe and Turner. But it was to a different lighting effect that my thought train eventually turned. Above the counter are a series of hanging lights with angular shades over them. Above our table were LED bulbs inset into the ceiling.
The way that the LEDs above us had been placed produced two shadows from the spoon on the saucer of my cup. A dark shadow and a light shadow at a slightly different angle. One reason that LEDs have caught on as a light source is that they are more efficient and so better environmentally and cheaper financially. So you may think that LEDs are one way of reducing our (collective) environmental footprint. But does this work? According to a study that measured the outdoor light levels around the world from 2012 to 2016, the answer is no. It would appear that while on a local level, people are enjoying cheaper lighting, on larger scales (nationally, globally), this decreased cost is leading to us installing more lights. Consequently, on the global scale, the area of land that is lit has increased by 2.2% per year with very few countries showing a reduction or even a stabilisation of the amount of outdoor areas that are lit.
Does this matter? Well, it is something that is affecting us, the way we view our world and the wildlife that we share our planet with and so it is something that we ought to be thinking about. In brightly lit areas of the UK, trees have been shown to produce buds up to 7.5 days earlier than in darker areas. Artificial light is causing problems for nocturnal insects and animals, with knock on effects for crop pollination. And when was the last time you looked up at the sky on a clear night and saw seven of the Pleiades let alone the Milky Way? How does it change our psychology and philosophical outlook when we can no longer gaze at the night sky with wonder and without the glow of streetlights?
Some astronomers have called for increased shielding of street lighting as a way for us to both enjoy well lit streets and be able to enjoy looking up at the night sky. Shielding such as that over the lights over the counter at Redemption Roasters café, where the light is efficiently directed downwards rather than be allowed to escape into the sky. Small steps that can make a big difference. It is interesting to notice that around central London at least, many newer lampposts are more efficiently shielded than older ones. Pausing for a coffee in Redemption Roasters café is a great moment to consider this problem and your reaction to it. Have you stopped to gaze at the night sky recently?
After leaving the café, I realised I had lost an opportunity to notice something else. Frequently, after visiting a good café, I will look up the area in my London Encyclopaedia¹ to see whether there is anything of interest historically in the area of the café. As expected, Lamb’s Conduit St was named after a conduit made from a tributary of the river Fleet restored by one William Lamb in 1577. But Lamb also donated 120 buckets for poor women of the area to use for collecting their water, which explains the statue of a woman with an urn at the top of the street. However what was also mentioned was that at the entrance to Long Yard (ie. very close to Redemption Roasters) there is an ancient stone inset into a wall with a description about the Lamb’s Conduit. Somehow I missed this though Double Skinny Macchiato evidently found it. So if you do visit Redemption Roasters café, and I would very much recommend that you do, as well as taking some time to savour the coffee and to notice the surroundings, please do look out for this elusive stone and if you find it, do let me know.
¹The London Encyclopaedia, Weinreb, Hibbert, Keay and Keay, MacMillan, 2008
Redemption Roasters Cafe is at 84 Lamb’s Conduit St, WC1N 3LR
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?
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.
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 oator 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!
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.
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.
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 deathswere 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.
Over a three month period, a study by Imperial Collegeshowed 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)).
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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.
“[W]hile 30% of UK consumers claimed to espouse ethical standards only 3% of purchases examined reflected those standards”∗.
Most of us are aware of the growing number of environmental problems facing our planet and many of us want to do something. The question is what? Take the packaging that we use for freshly-roasted coffee. It often comes in metallised plastic bags with aroma valves on the front. Is this packaging good for the environment, or for our coffee?
Many factors will influence our decisions as consumers. Even our ‘ethical’ decisions can be based on different arguments. One factor though is, hopefully, the insights gained from scientific studies on the environmental effects of different types of packaging. Today’s Daily Grind examines some of this science.
Types of coffee packaging available
When you order coffee from a roaster, or buy it at a supermarket, mostly it will arrive in a metallised plastic bag. Some companies will supply coffee in compostable ‘plastic’ packaging, or paper, but most bags are still made from ordinary plastic. Some, larger, coffee roasters supply their coffee in cans. Although these are 100% recyclable, the increased weight compared to plastic packaging and the limited re-usability of the cans mean that plastic packaging can be more environmentally friendly than canned coffee. This article is therefore only going to consider smaller roasters and the plastic vs paper debate.
The problems of packaging
It is helpful to clarify the environmental concerns with respect to packaging. For the case of paper vs plastic, three major areas of concern are:
Depletion of a limited resource, recycling and re-usability.
Carbon dioxide emissions – in the manufacture and transportation of packaging.
Degradability – in both landfill and as litter.
Recycling and the Limited Resource problem
Paper comes from wood but plastics are generally a by-product of the petroleum industry (5% of petroleum in the US is used to produce plastics). Perhaps you will say that not all plastics are made from petroleum by-products. It is true. “Compostable” plastics are typically manufactured from starch based products (corn etc). However other bio-degradable plastics are petroleum based. “Oxo-biodegradable” plastic is ‘ordinary’ plastic with a small amount of catalyst added to it during manufacture. The catalyst causes the plastic to break down more quickly than the conventional plastic without the additive. Typically oxo-biodegradable plastic will be manufactured to degrade after 18 months compared with many years for ‘ordinary’ plastic.
Both compostable and oxo-biodegradable plastic are sometimes called ‘biodegradable’, but there are crucial differences between the two. For the sake of this article, I’ll be comparing ‘ordinary’ plastic with ‘compostable’ plastic (conforming to EN 13432) and oxo-biodegradable plastic (regulation ASTM D6954).
So the first part of the question would be to ask if the coffee packaging is made from recycled material. Paper can clearly be made from recycled material as can ordinary plastic and oxo-biodegradable plastic. Compostable plastic cannot be recycled and so cannot have been made from recycled material.
The second part of the question is whether you can recycle the packaging after using it. Again, paper packaging can obviously be recycled (provided it is not lined with plastic). Although both ordinary and oxo-biodegradable plastic can, in principle, be recycled, the multilayered and metallised design of the coffee bag means that it is not normally recyclable. Some coffee roasters however have started using specially designed plastic packaging that can be recycled in normal recycling centers. It would be great if more followed suit.
Two questions for your coffee supplier: Are the bags used to package the coffee made from recycled material and are they recyclable?
Greenhouse Gas emissions and energy costs
Perhaps it is greenhouse gas emissions that concern you and so want to choose an environmentally sound packaging in terms of its CO2 emissions? Paper or plastic? You may be surprised. The environmental cost of a packaging type as measured by its CO2 emissions depends mostly on the energy that is required to manufacture it and the energy that is required to transport the packaging material to the point at which it is used (ie. the delivery of the bags to the roaster).
A few years ago, the Environment Agency performed a lifecycle analysis of different types of shopping bags (plastic, paper, cloth). Plastic bags are typically significantly lighter than the heavier paper bags. So, in addition to the cost of making the bags, it is going to require more energy to transport paper bags to the point of use. The report calculated that the manufacture and transportation of paper bags consumed so much more energy than plastic bags, that paper bags had to be re-used 4 times in order to have the same CO2 emissions as an ordinary supermarket plastic bag, re-used as a bin liner. The situation for a cloth bag was even worse.
Although the plastic used for coffee packaging is much heavier than a standard supermarket shopping bag, the analysis suggests that if your concern is CO2, paper is not necessarily better than plastic. It depends on how you are going to re-use the bags before you eventually recycle them.
Litter and Degradability
I hope that no one is deliberately discarding their used coffee packets onto the street or onto the beach! But litter and bio-degradability are big issues for plastic based packaging materials, particularly at sea. There are horrific stories about marine animals being starved due to consuming plastic or being drowned because they are entangled in it. Paper will degrade very quickly and so clearly does not suffer from the same problems as the plastic packaging in this topic. However, as mentioned above, not all plastic is the same. As well as ordinary plastic, your coffee could come roasted and packaged in a degradable plastic, either compostable or oxo-biodegradable.
The name ‘compostable plastic’ (EN13432) is, to me, a bit disingenuous. It suggests that it breaks down in a composting facility such as my worm bin. But the standard EN13432 does not refer to such home-composting at all. For a plastic to be deemed compostable it has to break down under industrial composting conditions (ie. it is held at 58 C for the period of its degradation). Not all countries/councils offer such facilities for their waste disposal and so a compostable plastic sent to landfill offers little advantage over ‘ordinary’ plastic. However, in the marine environment it has been shown that the compostable plastic bag did degrade quickly relative to ordinary plastic bags‡.
Oxo-biodegradable plastic on the other hand works very differently. At the time of its manufacture, metal-salt catalysts are added to the plastic that determine how long the plastic survives before it breaks down. As long as it is exposed to light and oxygen, the oxo-biodegradable plastic will break down after, typically, 18 months (though the usable time can be made longer than this). Recent studies have shown that it is safe to recycle oxo-biodegradable plastic together with conventional plastic recycling†. Provided that the bag does not get covered in algae, an oxo-biodegradable plastic will break down after 18 months (if that was the time specified at manufacture) whether it is on land or on sea.
Therefore if litter is what you are worried about, you have to ask where you think that the plastics are going to end up and whether you want to be able to recycle them or just re-use them.
So what should you do?
There’s no point me answering this question for you. Ultimately I do not know your individual circumstances and concerns, nor how you are buying and consuming your coffee. Moreover, these considerations have been solely based on some of the environmental problems associated with different packaging. Coffee consumption has other factors, such as the major issue of how the coffee tastes. Earlier this year, Roasting House conducted an experiment to blind-taste the coffee after it had been stored in different types of packaging. You can find the results of that interesting study here.
Personally, my concerns are principally the greenhouse gas emissions and the litter/degradability problem. I also buy coffee that is delivered to me very soon after it has been roasted. So I tend to favour packaging that uses unbleached, recycled paper. There is a caveat though. The CO2 emissions caused by paper manufacture and transportation means that I need to find a way to re-use the bags as often as possible before recycling/composting. Fortunately, I think there is a great use for old paper coffee bags: They are the perfect size for carrying loose vegetables or uncooked fish/meat products in supermarkets (rather than use the plastic bags that can be supplied for these products). Each paper coffee bag can be reused multiple times before it finally becomes unusable.
If I were drinking coffee that wasn’t quite so freshly roasted, I would be in favour of using oxo-biodegradable plastic (preferably from recycled material). I do not currently have an opinion on compostable (EN13432) plastic. The results of the degradation of compostable plastic in a marine environment were encouraging and if it starts to become genuinely compostable (as I understand the word in terms of home composting) it would definitely be a type of packaging to consider.
You may come to different conclusions, if you do so, please do let me know what you think in the comments section below. In the meantime, a map of coffee roasters who are trying to improve the environmental footprint of their packaging in a variety of ways can be found here.
I am grateful for discussions with Oh Ying Ying of Miracle Spectrum Sdn Bhd who helped me to navigate the minefield of environmental plastics. There is much more to write about plastics, the environment, litter & the Paris meeting, the whole issue of take-away cups for example!
∗ Yeow et al., “Bags for life: the embedding of ethical consumerism” J. Business Ethics, 125, 87 (2014)
‡ O’Brine et al., “Degradation of plastic carrier bags in the marine environment”, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 60, 2279 (2010)
† A report by the Transfer Centre für Kunststofftecknik GmbH (“TCKT”) dated 12 November 2013 on behalf of European Plastic Converters (EuPC), Roediger Agencies.
ª Plastics and the Environment, Ed. AL Andrady, Wiley-Interscience Publications, 2003