Tag Archives: Lifestyle

Eco-espresso?

3LpAs of 2011, the top five biggest commodities in the world were (in descending order) crude oil, coffee, natural gas, gold and Brent oil. As a first note, the presence of three fossil fuels in this list means that there is still a long way to go in the transition to a low carbon economy. But, yes, what I was actually trying to point out is that coffee is the second biggest commodity in the world. An estimated 1.6 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide every single day, with an estimated 55 million in the UK.

As former president of the University of Manchester Coffee Connoisseurs Club (UoMCCC), I set out to try and establish what kind of impact drinking coffee has on the environment, whether it is an issue that so much of the stuff is consumed every day and to what extent it can be sustainably sourced.

Fair Trade coffee has become widely available in recent years, with many big brands displaying the Fair Trade logo on their packaging. In the UK, almost 25% of total coffee sales are Fair-trade – a proportion which is steadily growing. This is certainly a step in the right direction regarding the coffee industry’s treatment of humans. Regarding treatment of the environment, on the other hand, it is not so obvious that improvements are being made.

 

Can’t see the woods for the lack of trees

Coffee is naturally found and traditionally grown, in tropical and subtropical regions of the world, in forested and often mountainous areas. Under the canopy of trees, the coffee plant is sheltered from constant direct sunlight. The rich biodiversity means the soil in which it lives is healthy and, further, there are few pests which are able to damage the crop before being swooped up by a predator. A human seeking to harvest coffee beans from such a plant cannot expect to get the greatest yield for a unit area, but at least the crop was grown in keeping with nature and without any need for pesticides or herbicides.

Since the 1970’s, monoculture and sun-grown coffee have become the norm. It was recently reported that

“By the end of the 1990’s, sun or reduced-shade cultivation systems accounted for almost 70% of Colombia’s land area devoted to coffee and 40% of Costa Rica’s.”

By clearing away regions of forest, farmers were able to increase their yield. In Central America alone, 2.5 million acres of forest have been cleared for coffee farming. Clearly, this deforestation results in the utter destruction of ecosystems far older than our society and which are among the most delicate on Earth. In the world of coffee, there is a tragic trade-off between a higher yield and less ecological damage. Needless to say, the cutting down of trees implies a reduced capacity of the natural world to absorb climate warming CO2, especially when applied on an industrial scale.

By removing the other flora and fauna which originally lived in harmony with coffee crops, the soil quality degrades and pests have free reign, meaning fertilisers, herbicides and and pesticides are the commonly used, as in the majority of global agriculture. Clearly, less than perfect handling of these chemicals can lead to further ecological problems such as water pollution and contamination.

IntroToCoffeeBeans_Content2Of course, many of the ecological problems discussed above are not unique to coffee and apply to many other crops grown in hot conditions. One factor that is particularly relevant, however, is waste.

As can be seen in the diagram opposite, the marketable product which is the coffee bean is just one, inner part of the harvested fruit, known as the coffee cherry. As any coffee connoisseur will be aware, there are many different processes by which the pulp is separated from the bean such as honey processing, natural processing, semi-dry/wet-hulled processing, washed processing… The enormous variety of flavours of coffee available on the market may be attributed largely to these different methodologies, which have heritage in different parts of the world from Ethiopia, to Indonesia, to El Salvador. Despite differences in what is done after harvest, each of the methods eventually discards the pulp and many require additional water and labour.

For the coffee connoisseur, the diverse range of coffee processes, origins and formats (from espresso, to siphon, to frappe-latte-mochachino), is astounding. The sad truth is that in order to obtain this diversity, an even richer diversity is often sacrificed – that of age-old ecosystems.

 

In the hands of the consumer

Unlike some crops sold on the international market, which are flown, coffee is usually transported by freighter ship or train, meaning that the environmental aspects of its transportation are not so bad. However, once on the shores of the consumer, yet more problems abound.

Not least of these are the problems of the waste theme, such as disposable coffee cups. An estimated 25,000 tonnes of waste is generated by the coffee industry in the UK alone, with 2.5 billion single-use coffee cups thrown away each year.
Further, if you decide to save money and brew your beverage at home, there are climatic impacts due to the fact that the kettle is a profoundly energy intensive device. Assuming you do not have a renewable power source, a recent investigation at Imperial College London revealed that boiling 1 litre of water in the average electric kettle results in approximately 70g of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. England’s all-time highest TV-related electricity demand surge was during half-time of the 1990 World Cup semi-final with West Germany, when the whole country went and put their kettles on to make a brew.

1990-Semi-Final-Pickups
Electricity demand during 1990 semi-final. Source: national grid.

Now I am not going to propose that everyone should give up coffee and all hot beverages along with it, for the sake of the environment. But there are certainly ways in which changes in the consumer habit could lessen the impact of the coffee industry on the world we inhabit.

In direct terms, only boiling enough water as is needed and carrying a reusable cup are two commonly given, but far less often followed, pieces of advice which need no further explanation.

Sustainable coffee does exist. Recent attempts involve shade grown coffee, which mimics the way coffee grows naturally, in tune with nature. Whilst coffee grown in this way is sometimes more expensive, its environmental impacts are much less than the conventional farming methods, the social responsibility is significantly higher and the benefit for ecosystems is great. The Huffington Post recently reported the head of sustainable agriculture at Rainforest Alliance, Chris Wille, as saying that

“Our scientists say a certified coffee farm is the next best thing to rainforest,”

regarding shaded farms. In some cases, these products are even equivalently priced to sun grown coffees. Surely there is no good reason for an environmentally conscious coffee lover not to consider switching to shade grown coffee.

 

Resources

There are a number of shade grown coffees now on the market, which can be found on coffee-direct.co.uk, naturalcollection.com and birdandwild.co.uk.

Image sources: headergif, demand

Zero waste living: Minimising waste in the 21st century

THE NEW STATE OF AFFAIRS

Every day millions of products are sold in single-use packaging, usually a form of plastic or ‘mixed-material’: sandwich containers, plastic films, coffee cups, bubble wrap and the like. The resulting vast swathes of disposables discarded, along with many recyclable items, find their way to landfill sites, to clusters in the oceans* and to garbage incinerators. The consequent effect on the geosphere is both detrimental and escalating day by day.

Fundamental studies of geology teach us that the geologic timescale of Earth is divided into periods (perhaps the most famous being the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous), which are themselves divided into epochs. The current epoch is known as the Holocene epoch and  it began roughly 11,700 years ago, following the end of the last ice age and the Pleistocene epoch. What an epoch refers to is the structure of the rock deposited during a certain length of time, perhaps providing us with knowledge concerning the type of creatures which existed then (through examining fossils), the constitution of the atmosphere or the relative sea levels. Until the Holocene, the defining characteristics of each epoch were all derived from natural processes. However there is now so much waste buried in the ground and the atmosphere has changed radically enough that some geologists believe it is time we declare a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. This name was coined in 2000 by Paul Crutzen in the journal Nature.

The advent of the Anthropocene means mankind has had such an enormous effect on the constitution of the geosphere that humanity’s industrial byproducts are recognisable from examining rocks and also through proxies such as ice cores and tree rings, for example. As mentioned above, it is not just the ground beneath our feet which is changing. It is an almost universally accepted fact that the atmosphere which we breath has changed beyond recognition due to human influence, for example through an increase of around 100pm of carbon dioxide composition in the last 250 years. The consequent alterations comprise what we call (anthropogenic) climate change.

WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

As is mentioned in the excellent, inspiring review paper ‘The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship’, whose list of authors includes the pioneering Paul Crutzen, the Holocene is the only state of the Earth system wherein we can be certain that contemporary human civilisation can exist. This epoch is known to have been relatively stable, allowing mankind to develop to the highly intelligent state as in the present. The Anthropocene, on the other hand, is far less certain to be so gentle on us. In the vastly altered environment which we are increasingly finding ourselves, extreme weather events such as severe storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts will become only more frequent. This is threatening for the many people who live in delicate geographical circumstances, particularly in equatorial countries such as those surrounding Saharan Africa and low-lying coastal regions such as Bangladesh and the Netherlands.

Alongside the problems posed directly by climate change, there are numerous other serious, related issues, including a shortage of food resources and (fertile) land in many areas of the world, all with the ominous backdrop of an exponentially increasing population. In the paper mentioned above, the authors outline the necessity of a renewed approach to the way in which mankind views and is treating the world, both for its sake and our own. This movement is not completely new – James Lovelock in particular has long supported the notion of a vengeful ‘Mother Earth’ Gaia interpretation of nature, which is very much capable of evolving of its own accord in order to outlast the threat posed by humanity, and encouraged a much more co-operative approach to civilisation than is currently exhibited. In terms of problems posed directly by the waste issue, landfilling and over-production of packaging not only inflates land shortage, but can pollute nearby soils and rivers, damaging delicate ecosystems, and lead to an increased level of shipping.**

WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?

Some researchers refer to the status quo production methodology of the modern era as a ‘linear economy’, in that materials are mined, farmed or grown, then made into single-use products, which are thereby used by the consumer and disposed. In this paradigm, products are often cheaply made in order to maximise profit and therefore are not built to last. Above I have made the case that this is simply unsustainable and infeasible. An alternative approach is sometimes known as a ‘circular economy’, wherein there is a real focus on making the most durable products as possible, using the minimal quantity of resources, and always giving preference to regeneration and recycling of materials, rather than extracting anew.

There are multiple movements which fit within the remit of a circular economy, including the break free from plastic movement and the Zero Waste Europe movement, the latter of which is making waves across the continent, with many local councils and companies already pledging to move towards a zero waste-to-landfill regime. On a more personal note, as of 1st  October 2016, I have committed to becoming a zero waste individual. All new products I have purchased since then either come in recyclable or compostable packaging, or indeed in no packaging at all! If absolutely necessary, I allow myself up to 500g of disposable waste per year, as other zero wasters suggest.*** I have found that in going waste free, it often naturally follows that one reduces one’s carbon footprint also – for instance, buying fresh in-season fruit and vegetables from local markets, collected in reusable bags. One thing that has really helped me on my way is the discovery that supermarkets across the country, including Sainsbury’s, have installed plastic bag recycling points in their stores to account for those awkward products such as toilet roll that you just can’t buy without a plastic film wrapper.

I have heard many people argue that the waste problem is not directly related to climate change – that recycling alone is not going to save the world. This is of course true, but through aiming to tackle the enormous waste problem that is now afoot in the world, the approach of a circular economy refocuses our influence not on endless (or so we think) extraction for maximal profit, but on making the most of what we have and ensuring there are enough resources remaining to sustain many, many generations to come. In making this change of purpose, one also takes a step towards a greener economy, and moves to provide a safer and more stable future for all. There are many pieces to the grandest of puzzles that is solving the problem of climate change, but surely committing to reduced waste is one clear step in the right direction.

 

FOOTNOTES

*: My fellow MPE CDT colleagues, Ben Snowball and Birgit Sützl, are currently undergoing MRes projects centring around mathematical models for tracking plastic waste in the world’s oceans.

**: I was disgusted to find out from a friend who works in the shipping industry that the main physical export of the United Kingdom is… waste! There have also been numerous cases of illegal smuggling of waste out of the UK.

***: I still feel ‘zero waste’ is an accurate term even if one creates a small amount of it. After all, the average American produces over 500kg per year!