Coffee: emissions or waste?

Plastic free coffee? Is it possible? Is it desirable?

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.

If you decide to buy your coffee in compostable packaging, look out for the “OK compost, home” label by Vincotte

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.

There is a good (physics based) reason that dairy milk is often supplied in semi-opaque bottles: the packaging protects the milk within from UV light that would otherwise cause it to spoil.

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.

General Sustainability/environmental Tea

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.



Coffee review General Home experiments Observations

A pebble puzzle at The Lanes Coffee House, Brighton

The Lanes Coffee House Brighton, Coffee Brighton
The Lanes Coffee House, Brighton

Hidden somewhere deep in “The Lanes” in Brighton is a great little café that goes by the (somewhat appropriate) name “The Lanes Coffee House“. The Lanes is a set of old, narrow streets that form quite a maze, a great place to explore if you are a visitor to Brighton. There are two entrances to The Lanes Coffee House, which is fortunate as we may not have found the ‘front’ entrance while wandering aimlessly around a few weeks ago. With plenty of seats inside, and a few at the back, The Lanes Coffee House has a lot to notice if you like to sit in a café, enjoying your coffee, without the distractions of your phone or laptop. Pictures by a local artist decorate the walls, with each picture featuring a Brighton scene and The Lanes Coffee House in a “Where’s Wally” type format. A window opens up to the narrow lane outside and there is also plenty to notice inside the café where we enjoyed an Americano and Soya hot chocolate. Sadly on the day that we tried The Lanes there weren’t any nut-free cakes at the counter and so, as compensation, we had to have a bag of fudge.

We sat at a table on which there was a tiny metal bucket that was used for holding sugar (see picture). With Brighton being a sea-side town, this immediately conjured up images of sandcastles and picnic sandwiches. The only problem with this image of course is the fact that Brighton has a pebble beach rather than a sandy one. So rather than think about sandcastles I got thinking about something slightly different: If you were to partially fill a bucket with some sand, put a stone from the beach in the bucket and then fill the rest of the bucket with sand, how could you easily retrieve that stone without fishing around in the sand for it?

missing a spade but it is a bucket
Bucket with sugar at The Lanes

This question came up, in a slightly different way, in a paper published nearly 30 years ago called “Why the Brazil nuts are on top“. That paper dealt with the question of why, in a package of mixed nuts, the Brazil nuts (i.e. the largest nuts) were frequently found to be on top when the package was opened. Termed, the “Brazil nut effect”, it turns out that this question is not just an odd bit of physics but has relevance to the packaging industry and earthquake dynamics. If you were to shake the bucket of sand containing that one pebble, the stone would rise up through the sand, eventually coming to the surface. The question is, what is driving this ‘anti-gravity’ type behaviour? Why do the heavy objects rise to the top?

Obviously, being a coffee website, to do the experiment with sand and a stone is a bit, well, dull. So, using dried, used, grounds (well, what do you do with your used coffee grounds?) and a green coffee bean*, I repeated the experiment on a smaller scale, in a shot glass. I put the green bean at the bottom of the shot glass and then covered it with coffee grounds (up to half way up the shot glass). To prevent too much mess, I covered the shot-glass with a piece of clingfilm. In order to avoid too much vertical shaking, the glass was hit repeatedly from the side in order to ‘shake’ it. It took 40 seconds of vigorous shaking but the green bean eventually started to poke above the surface. The heavy large bean had moved up through the glass upon being shaken, just as the Brazil nuts end up on top in a bag of mixed nuts. Just how had that happened?

Brazil nut effect
Now you see it, after shaking the green bean rises to the surface

It turns out that there are several things going on. Firstly, as the 1987 paper discussed, the small grains of sand (or ground coffee) can fall into voids under the large Brazil nut/stone/coffee bean. This has the effect of pushing the nut/stone/coffee bean upwards until it reaches the surface. The coffee bean could move down through the grounds but this would require the collective movement of a large number of coffee grounds under the bean to form a void large enough for the bean to fall into, something that is fairly unlikely. So the coffee bean will move up, the coffee grounds will move down. Then there is an effect that is more familiar to coffee drinkers, convection. The idea here is that although all the particles in the glass (or bucket) can move upwards as the container is shaken, only the small particles can move down again through the small voids created at the sides of the container. Rather like the movement of milk in a hot coffee, this again has the effect that the small particles push the larger particle up.

After this though things start to get more complicated. Along with what has been termed “the inverse Brazil nut effect”, it seems that air pressure may play a role in the Brazil nut effect. Who knew that Brazil nuts could be so complicated! Perhaps though, to finish our train of thought on The Lanes we could turn this effect into a non-physics, almost allegorical, meditation? If we, as a society, are collectively shaken enough, can small, individual actions do what at first seems impossible? I wouldn’t want to push the analogy too far, but it does seem an interesting problem on which to dwell for a further five minutes while you are sipping on your long black (or, as this is officially the first day of summer, your cold brew).

(If you’d rather think about the physics of sandcastles, you can find out more about them here).

*The green coffee bean came from a jute coffee sack that had been given to me by Amoret coffee for my composting worms. Thanks Amoret!

The Lanes Coffee House is at 59D Ship Street Brighton, BN1 1AE