There are various aspects of sustainability pertaining to coffee and coffee production, including farming techniques, fair wages, distribution and transportation, and among others, brewing. I would like to focus on this last piece because it is the most visible to the public and because the public can easily change its habits in order to brew coffee more sustainably.
In his Daily Shot of Coffee article “22 Methods to Make Coffee: How Many Different Ways Have You Brewed Coffee?” Mike breaks down the beauty of brewing via an eclectic array of coffee-making methods, some well-known and others niche. Personally, I am only familiar with about half of the methods and those new to me look well worth trying one day. I am not writing to push a certain method—I think that the majority of those listed are quite sustainable, in that the machines are very minimalist and they produce minimal waste. In fact, many of the methods produce no end-use waste except coffee grounds, which can be used as fertilizer.
I would however like to advocate against a particular type of machine—the single-cup brewer that seems to be taking over America. I have no qualms about judging these machines—they are absurd monstrosities that would look more befitting under the hood of a car than on a kitchen countertop. The coffee that they make isn’t very good, and why would it be? Hot water is injected at high pressure through an aluminum seal on the capsule, inhibiting the coffee and water from brewing ensemble. Calculations place single brew coffee at as much as $60 per pound. This is more expensive than some of the rarest coffees on the planet, which are definitely not the type of blends inside of single-serving capsules. The single-cup coffee machine is little more than an overhyped and overpriced mechanism for pushing glorified instant coffee.
Judgments aside, let us examine the environmental impacts of the coffee capsules themselves. The most common type—the K-cup—is made of a plastic outer shell, a mesh filter, and an aluminum seal, all of which are individually recyclable. Yet no recycling center or its employees is equipped or wants to spend the time to separate these materials from every capsule. As a result K-cups are piling up in landfills across the country and beyond. The non-renewable fossil fuels used to make the plastic outer shell are wasted. Packaged excessively, the capsules also waste more fuel as they are transported through the supply chain (think of the space on a truck that a one-pound bag of coffee would occupy as opposed to a 12-pack of single-serving capsules). Environmentally, single-serve capsules are a failure.
To their credit, single-serve machines offer both variety and the capacity to service large offices. But the costs are simply too high for the public, the environment, and for coffee. Fixing the problem does not require government regulations—all it takes is the almighty consumer. Eschew single-serving coffee machines. Do not purchase them. Do not use them. If you feel comfortable speak to others about their environmental detriment while selling the beauty of a French press for the home or a Newco Eco brewer for the office. Restore the beauty of coffee by disempowering the single-serving coffee machine that simply does no good, and take coffee back, by selecting coffee-brewing methods that will leave a brighter future for generations to come.