plastic free July

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.

Half way through…

talesfromthewormbin

What packaging does your coffee come in? Is it paper, compostable? The bits of packaging here are part of an experiment to see how long they will take to break down in a worm composting bin #talesfromthewormbin

The problem is oat milk. If you are having a go at living plastic free (or even reducing your reliance on single use plastic) during Plastic Free July, you have probably encountered at least one sticking point. Something that you are finding a little tricky to let go of. There are things that are too difficult to eliminate right now (meat/fish packaging is one example although there have been efforts to change this in some locations) but these are not necessarily sticking points. No, sticking points are things that seem that they should be easy to eliminate but for some reason are not. For me this is oat milk.

For the past three years, I have been participating in Plastic Free July with the aim of trying to find ways of living that reduce my plastic waste. And for the past three years, the problem has been oat milk. It is becoming a bit of a nemesis. Although proper, dairy based milk is available in glass bottles, this does not appear true for non-dairy based milks. Although some packaging can be recycled, it is a significant contributor to my waste pile. So, how about home made oat milk? It should be easy shouldn’t it?

oat milk, kone, filtering

Oat milk filtering through the Kone filter.

You can find plenty of recipes for oat milk online (a few are here, here and here) but I’ve always found it messy and, well, wasteful. The worms have enjoyed the oats in the past but surely there’s something better that can be done with them? Well, this year, things seem a bit different. And part of that is because of a coffee filter.

Years ago I tried the coffee Kone filter as an attempt to reduce my use of paper filters in the chemex. Sadly, I didn’t get on with the Kone. Unlike a paper filter, some sediment made it through the filter leading to more of an immersion type coffee drink rather than a filter. Consequently it went to the top of a cupboard and lay forgotten for a few years. Until this June when I re-discovered it as a filter for the oat milk. Rather than a muslin bag, the Kone can be cleaned easily and the whole process is significantly less messy (and slightly quicker – stirring the contents of the Kone with a spoon is easier encouragement to get the oat milk through than squeezing the muslin bag). Although there remains significant work before this can start to be a habit rather than just for a month, this July’s oat milk is a lot more promising than previous years. I’ll keep you updated as to whether the oat milk remains being home made in August.

pitch drop oat milk

Preparing your own dairy-free milk also offers new opportunities for watching physics such as the pitch-drop experiment here.

In the meantime, do let me know how you are getting on with your own Plastic Free July. Do you have any sticking points? On the other hand, are you finding that you are enjoying taking your re-usable cup around with you when you get a take-out coffee? Also, if you have any recipes for things that can be done with these left over blended oats. I’d love to hear of your culinary experiments.

In the following recipes, because I do not know how much oat milk you are making, I’ll call the amount of blended oats X g. In my experiments X has been either 115g or ~60g.

 

Oat and Apple Tarts

Xg blended oat left overs

Xg sugar

X/2 g flour

Pinch cinnamon and nutmeg to taste

teaspoon baking powder

Cooking apple (peeled and cut into smallish chunks)

 

Mix the blended oat left overs with the sugar and then stir in the flour, baking powder and spices. Spoon onto a greased baking sheet so that they make circular blobs of about 3cm diameter. Place the apple pieces into the mixture and bake at 180C for about 15 minutes until risen and slightly browned.

 

Sort of Flapjacks

X g blended oat left overs

X g sugar

X/2 g flour (but this isn’t really necessary).

Oat flakes, spelt flakes, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, dried fruit, whatever you would like to put in a flapjack

Mix everything together, spoon into a lined and greased baking tin, bake at 190C for 15 minutes until firm. Keeps in an airtight container for days.

 

Hobnobby biscuits

home made oat biscuits

Not quite there yet. If you have a better recipe or can improve this one, please let me know.

A work in progress – the quantity of oats is not right yet and perhaps they need to be toasted oats or even spelt flakes.

X g blended oat left overs

X g sugar

X/2 g flour

teaspoon baking powder.

X-2X g oats

Mix the blended left overs, sugar, flour and baking powder together. Stir in the oats. Spoon on a lined and greased baking sheet so that you get ‘biscuit sized’ portions. Bake for 25 minutes at 190C or until brown.

 

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.