10 ways to make your daily coffee better for the planet

coffee on table with sweets

As coffee drinkers, can we really make a dent in the environmental impact of this global commodity?

After all, coffee beans are shipped from the other side of the planet, surely that matters more than anything we can do.

The data says quite the opposite.

Recent research by our Coffee Science & Education Centre shows that both coffee production (growing & processing coffee beans) & transportation combined make up only 7% of the overall carbon emissions.

On the other hand,

coffee consumption makes up a massive 93% of the total impact.

Yes, our decisions can make a real difference.

Here are 10 practical ways you can be part of the solution:

milk coffee in take away cup

1. Downsize your dairy

If you drink espresso coffee with milk (like a flat white, latte or cappuccino), then a simple & effective way to reduce your impact is to simply choose a smaller cup size.

I’m not talking about the classic, 160-200ml ceramic cups typically used for sit-down coffees, the real issue is with take-away cups.

Take-away cups are often much larger than their ‘dine-in’ equivalents, requiring more milk to fill them. For example, a typical ‘large’ 16oz takeaway latte contains up to 400ml of milk. If you drink a few of those a day, the litres really start to add up.

How does reducing milk help?

It comes down to the impact of dairy production. All those cows produce a lot of methane, which is potent greenhouse gas.

In fact, our recent research showed that over 25% of the carbon footprint of the average Australian café comes from milk use alone. What’s more, if we reduced our total milk consumption by just 3%, that would offset the entire carbon footprint of the paper cups used.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the taste & nutritional benefits of dairy milk – but drinking less of it can be better for your health & the environment.

2. Try oat milk

While we’re talking about reducing dairy, it’s worth pointing out just how far milk alternatives have come.

With dozens of types & brands specifically designed for coffee, it’s no wonder that they are predicted to grow by 7% per year.

While all of these varieties have a lower environmental impact than dairy, in our opinion (and research), the pick of these options is Oat milk.

Not only does it have the most milk-like taste & texture – Oat milk also has a lower environmental impact than Almond or Milk.

Of course, it can’t beat black coffee – but that’s a story for another day.

recyclable coffee bags on shelf

3. Recycle your coffee bags

Coffee bags are made from layers of plastic & foil which provide a barrier from oxygen, moisture & light.

While this design is ideal for preserving the quality of roasted coffee, it means that these bags can’t be recycled using conventional systems.

That’s where Terracycle comes in.

As a pioneer in “recycling the non-recyclable”, they have come up with a system to separate these layers and turn the materials from these bags into a variety of new products like benches, picnic tables and even playgrounds.

Since partnering with Terracycle in 2019, together we’ve managed to prevent 36 Tonnes of coffee bag waste from going to landfill.

What’s more, you can get involved by recycle your coffee bags (for free) – click here to get started

hot water pouring from kettle to make pourover coffee

4. Only heat the water you actually need

Not-very-fun fact: The #1 source of carbon emissions produced by cafés comes from the electricity used to heat water.

According to a life-cycle analysis by our Coffee Science & Education Centre, energy use makes up over 50% of the total carbon footprint of a typical café business.

Of course, as a coffee drinker you can’t control what happens at your local cafe, but you can control how much water you heat at home.

This can be as simple as leaving your home espresso machine off until your need it or filling the kettle with the amount you need rather than all the way to the top.

5. Drink cold brew

If you really want to reduce the energy you use to heat water, then it might be time to get acquainted with cold brew coffee.

As the name suggests, this is coffee that is brewed with cold (room temperature) water – no electricity needed (well, perhaps for the grinder).

The smooth, chocolaty flavours extracted by this unconventional brewing method make it an ideal choice for iced coffee.

Not only is cold brew the hottest coffee trend for the summer months, but there’s a huge variety of different ways to enjoy it – from simple iced coffee, to cocktails & even infused with Nitrogen.

reusable coffee cup on counter at cafe

6. Bring your own cup

It almost goes without saying that the best way to prevent paper cups ending up in landfill is to bring your own reusable coffee cup.

With so many cool options out there, there’s never been a better time to find one that suits you.

If you like comparing specs, take a look our comparison of the best reusable coffee cups or just pick one that makes you feel good – either way, just remember to bring it when you’re heading out the door.

coffee seedling growing

7. Drink better quality coffee

While coffee consumption has the largest overall effect on the environment, coffee production (how the coffee is grown & processed) still has a significant impact.

There are a number of third-party certification programs like the Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade & UTZ that provide rules around the types of fertilisers & pesticides used along with protection of rainforests, wildlife & waterways.

These programs are a good sustainability safety net, but we can take this further by insisting on higher quality coffee.

Higher quality, ‘specialty’ coffees cost more, but the extra care and attention need to produce the best tasting coffees almost always goes hand in hand with better farm practices. – like biodiversity, natural pest control & a whole lot more.

So, in short, skip the supermarket and seek out coffee from a roaster that chooses the highest grades of green coffee.

8. Recycle paper cups

By now, most people know the problem with paper cups.

The thin plastic lining needed to make them waterproof means that that can’t be recycled using conventional systems.

What about biodegradable cups?

These cups use a plant-based polymer for the plastic lining (PLA). Under the right conditions, this lining (and the paper) break down over time.

The problem is, you can’t just throw them in the garden, these cups need specific ‘commercial composting’ conditions to break down. Unfortunately, only a tiny percentage of these cups actually end up in the necessary composting facilities, the rest end up in landfill.

The best solution is to simply bring your own reusable cup. Where that’s not possible, we recommend (and use) the RecycleMe system by Detpak.

recylable paper coffee cup

With this system, specially marked cups are collected in the café and returned to a dedicated recycling facility where they can be recycled up to 7 times.

9. Reuse coffee grounds

From homemade soaps, to natural insect repellent, the internet is packed with creative ways to use coffee grounds at home.

However, for most people, the most practical use is as a garden fertiliser.

Now, before you throw them straight on the veggie patch, there are a couple of details to note. Research has shown that untreated coffee grounds can stress plants, which in some cases can restrict growth.

One solution can be to add used grounds to other green waste in a compost bin (up to 20% volume), where the nitrogen-rich of the grounds can break down allowing the plants to benefit from it.

recyclable coffee pods

10. Recycle coffee pods

For those who use a pod machine for their daily caffeine hit, the best way to prevent pods from ending up in landfill is by choosing to recycle them.

Several brands offer free programs, where you can register online and send used pods back to be recycled.

For our part, we’ve partnered with Terracycle to offer free recycling for our coffee pods.

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sustainable coffee infographic

Ben Irvine
From owner / operator of his own coffee business, to product development for a coffee multinational, to consulting with independent cafe owners, Ben has been involved across a wide range of the industry over the last 20 years. When he isn’t brewing coffee, or writing about it, Ben is likely to be annoying his kids with 90’s music trivia.