One Thing You Can Do: Brew a Greener Cup of Coffee

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By Tik Root


CreditTyler Varsell

Exactly how humans came up with the idea of roasting and brewing coffee beans isn’t clear. More certain is the fact that coffee has grown into a global industry worth billions of dollars. And with that popularity comes climate consequences.

There’s deforestation to grow more beans, the shipping emissions that come from moving them to market and the resources that go into packaging. So, with more than 80 percent of Americans regularly drinking a cup (or three), greening our collective coffee habit could have positive effects.

That process starts at the source. Today, there are myriad labels, seals and certifications that promise you information on the human and environmental impact of your beans. An organic label, for instance, implies limits on the chemicals (like pesticides) used to grow the coffee, while a fair trade seal should signal better treatment of workers and communities.

Bob Schildgen, who writes the Mr. Green column for the Sierra Club, said the main labels he trusts for coffee are the United States Department of Agriculture organic certification and the Fairttrade seal. He said Smithsonian Bird Friendly and Rainforest Alliance Certified also offer at least some assurances that the beans are produced with care.

Once you’ve found beans with a lower environmental impact, what else you can do?

Ditching single-serving pods is one step. Not only do they require more packaging, but single servings also take significantly more energy to brew than traditional drip methods.

Even John Sylvan, one of the founders of Keurig, says he wishes he he’d never introduced coffee pods to the world. “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it,” he told The Atlantic, in 2015. “No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable.” (A Kuerig representative disputed that, saying many of the company’s pods were already recyclable and that it aimed make all of them recyclable by 2020).

You can skip the pods, and the electric coffee machine, by opting for pour-over preparations. You might also consider a metal or cloth filter instead of paper (though the metal allows more acid to pass through). Or, eliminate the filter altogether with by pressing your coffee. Best yet, try cold brew. No boiling water, and thus no electricity, needed. And some aficionados says it delivers better flavor with less acidity.

Once you’ve made your coffee, some of the things that go with it can be just as important as the brew itself. Milk, for instance, accounts for more than half the emissions footprint of the average coffee (and that percentage is drastically higher for dairy-heavy orders like lattes).

Single-use cups generate a lot of waste, so be sure to reach for that a reusable mug instead.

Finally, don’t forget: Those coffee grounds are compostable. Next time forgo the trash for the compost bin, or dump them directly in the garden.

Somini Sengupta

CreditCharlotte de la Fuente for The New York Times

I’m a wimp when it comes to the cold. I don’t like being cold. I most certainly don’t like riding a bike on cold and windy days with sharp, icy rain poking me in the face.

But that’s is exactly what I found myself doing, over the course of five days in the depth of winter in Copenhagen.

I loved it.

I went to Copenhagen to report on the city’s plan to be net carbon neutral by 2025. Some 43 percent of Copenhageners commute to work or school on their bikes. So I got a bike from my hotel, adjusted the saddle to my non-Viking height, and set off. The parking lot at the Norreport train station was a sprawling jumble of two-wheelers.

Some of the busiest bike lanes are elevated a couple of inches above the car lane, so there’s not much of a risk of a car cutting you off or opening a door and knocking you over. Commuter trains from the suburbs are packed with bikes. Copenhageners are not as aggressive as Amsterdammers on their bikes, and so I was only occasionally berated for going too slow.

There were lots of simple things that Copenhagen had done. Apartment buildings have eight separate recycling bins, including for hard plastic, soft plastic, electronics, and food waste. At Tivoli, an old-fashioned amusement park, there was a kiosk to return reusable coffee cups.

The drains don’t back up into the street after a few hours of rain — like they do in my neighborhood in Brooklyn — not even when there’s heavy, wet snow that turns into sloppy slush on the ground.

The road to carbon neutrality is paved with imperfect solutions. You can read about them in my story here — like, is it smart to burn garbage for heat and electricity?

Cities are going to have to do some heavy lifting if the world is to slow down climate change. Half of humanity now lives in cities, which produce most global emissions. Cities are both the source of the problem and, potentially, the source of big fixes.

Copenhagen’s experience could show what works and what doesn’t.

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