Sustainability in Coffee

“The organizing principle for sustainability is sustainable development, which includes the four interconnected domains: ecology, economics, politics and culture”

I will be honest, until recently I didn’t really know much about sustainability. Sure, I understood the basic principles, more precisely I understood that there are multiple concerns. I think commonly, the word sustainability is taken to mean environmental sustainability, when in fact it is a dynamic thing, in that it contains more than one consideration.

I once did a brewing course for a chap that worked with a sustainability NGO. One of the projects they had worked on was advising Pepsi. The project was based around potato farming (for making crisps, not soft drinks). The land was over-farmed and the lack of root systems meant that landslides were common in the area every couple of years. These events wiped out whole harvests.

Through taking a slightly longer form of analysis, the NGO showed that by planting less potatoes and creating a more diverse ecology in the area the landslides could be mitigated through a better root system, and that over a 5-year period the land would actually create more potatoes and be more profitable, whilst also improving the ecology of the land.

This is definitely a great example, however there is not always a quid pro quo situation where both environmental and economic concerns both benefit, and as the opening definition of this article points out, political and cultural sensitivity is also part of sustainability, with each topic often being part of a much larger web.

Sustainability discussions are difficult, rambling and complex. Sustainability in coffee is no different. A way to approach the subject is to narrow down what it is you’re looking at, creating some measurable metrics. The tricky thing here is to then comprehend how these individual aspects fit into the whole, and to figure out what should take precedence.

Energy and Waste – Taking a broader view

We have been thrilled to be able to team up with the chemical engineering department at Bath University and work with life cycle analysis methods to study the journey of a cup of coffee from seed to cup, looking at the environmental impact of every step. You can take look at the project on our Colonna labs page.

This is a project that is ongoing and we aim to publish in some way in the near future. To make the work eligible for publishing it cannot be publicly shared until after that process is complete. But there is other academic work on the subject that makes for some thought provoking reading.

Here are a couple of studies based around different brewing methods

Instant v drip v capsule 

Capsule v drip 

In essence, a life cycle study seeks to take a broader view that looks at the whole journey of the item/product from cradle to grave (and sometimes beyond the grave) when considering recycling or re-purposing of waste. In essence some of the most impactful aspects of the product’s journey may happen before or after your interaction with it.

The craft vs industrial surprise 

It is curious to consider that in most cases a small artisan approach to a particular product in almost any sphere, food, drink, technology etc will be more wasteful than a larger industrial approach to producing the same item. Industrial systems are always based on improving efficiency and maximising margins across volume whilst often trying to keep the end unit price down. Inherently this means being as economical as possible with the ingredients. It makes complete sense when you think about it.

Artisan and/or crafted items are likely to have a focus on process and quality. Thats not to say an industrial process can’t have high quality, but lets focus on coffee as the example for now.

Industrial processes in coffee can produce high quality but there is a correlation between those processes and a lower coffee quality. Take instant coffee as an example. Using life cycle analysis, instant coffee is time after time the ultimate way to make coffee for the lowest environmental impact.

Instant coffee’s trump card comes in the environmental impact of growing the coffee itself. Per cup of coffee, the land needed, the energy used and the resources required mean that the origin of the coffee is often producing most of the impact.

Therefore, the methods that come out on top are those that are the most efficient with this precious ingredient. Instant coffee is mighty efficient. The best processes super heat the coffee to achieve huge extractions of around 60%. Compare this to all other brewed coffees that range between say 16% and 24% with this top number of 24 being above the norm. Lets say this means that instant coffee typically yields 3 cups in comparison to 1 cup across all other methods for the same amount of harvested coffee.

Add to this that instant coffee weighs so much less per cup as you are only storing and shipping the solubles and not the rest of the bean, and it increases its lead. The only part of the instant process that isn’t superior when considering the footprint, is the boiling of a kettle of water.

These studies also tend to assume the same coffee source is being used. For example, instant coffee may well use its ingredient more efficiently, but does that ingredient tend to be as sustainably grown as the coffee that ends up being brewed in an artisinal espressos machine? It is the traditional espresso method of brewing coffee that has the largest footprint.

A focus on quality in speciality coffee has created a sustainable living for many producers and coffee businesses right through to the third wave shops that champion quality and provenance. In essence one element of sustainability may suffer to benefit another.

It is also valuable to consider the slice of the overall market place each type of coffee drink inhabits. A crafted cup of speciality coffee may well take up more land use per cup, more packaging per cup and more energy and resources but it also represents a much smaller segment of overall consumption.

Luxury and boutique products are always considered in context. For example, you buy a luxury product for a gift. It has considerably more packaging and associated waste but that is offset by the fact that it is not a daily consumed item. So, although per cup analysis is valuable. It can be valuable to consider the category of the product also and its position in a wider market.


Capsule coffee is directly associated with waste and environmental impact. It is easy to point the finger at capsules and feel rather triumphant about the V60 brew in comparison. So it may be somewhat of a surprise to read research that completely challenges these assumptions.

Research by Quanits based in Canada comes to a rather startling conclusion

“The adoption of a single-serve coffee system by North American consumers would realize significant environmental benefits including coffee waste reduction. Additional benefits could be achieved with the development of coffee machines with better energy-saving capabilities and extended service lives.

The single-serve coffee system’s packaging generates more packaging waste. However, when considering the entire life cycles of each system, the amount of coffee required making up for consumer waste and the electricity consumed for brewing (which depend on consumer habits and coffee machine features) drive the differences in impact.

Overall, the single-serve best case scenario posts a better environmental performance than the drip- brew system from the perspective of the systems’ full life cycles.


It will be no secret that I have an interest in capsules with the Colonna Capsule range.

In many ways the capsule project has fed into more focus and research into sustainability for us as a company, which is highly positive.

At World of Coffee in Dublin last year, Mike (a member of the Colonna team) struck up a conversation with a sustainability expert at the show. The individual was particularly intrigued by capsule coffee. She saw it as a great example of perception and experience shaping opinion, even though statistically the truth was quite different.

It is very natural that a capsule would raise the question of waste. When you make a cup of coffee in a cafeteria or buy an espresso and there is a purity to it, water and a roasted seed combing to create an aromatic beverage.

A capsule appears as this very same cup of coffee + additional plastic/aluminium waste.

Much like instant coffee, a capsule’s secret eco weapon is its efficient use of the raw ingredient, with a high yield and lower amount of coffee per cup. No way near that of instant coffee, but rather closer to that of the top end of normal brew methods, whilst creating a cup of coffee with a smaller ingredient amount but an experience of a full quantity.

There is an interesting question here about metrics and measurements. There is less coffee in a capsule, so should it be considered in the same context of a large cup of filter coffee? If a customer is satisfied by the experience of just one full cup then it could be seen as a successful way of using less ingredient and therefore less footprint per coffee drinker.

The other eco credentials of capsules are their brewing devices. These machines flash heat water using far less energy than a kettle and make for low impact brewing.

On the topic of metrics. There is much to explore here too. A life cycle study, or any study for that matter, rates the importance and “impact” of varying factors in terms of sustainability. But, how exactly does one measure toxic waste against green house gases? Or land fill against water used?

Although the world of sustainability research has created metrics within the life cycle analysis systems, it is also hotly debated. There can be different questions asked of the same model that flip something from being better to worse in terms of impact. This depends on the type of impact you want to measure.

It is also mind boggling when one considers how far the exploration of a product’s impact can be taken. One could also consider the resource and the materials used in the context of global industries, and the competition for scarce materials.

The message with capsules maybe should not be one of demonisation, but one of, how can we take an efficient brewing system and improve it further by reducing waste and impact.

The demonisation of capsules from the “manual” brew sector of coffee making is largely misplaced and when the spotlight is spun back onto methods like espresso or filter, they are left wanting. Even though capsule packaging should be improved, sustainability questions are just as pertinent for other methods.

How can we reduce waste and energy and footprint when making espresso, or when farming coffee? Speciality will always be a market with case-by-case examples. When studying the life cycle analysis of coffee Brazil is nearly always used as the origin from which coffee production data is gathered, but clearly different origins have widely differing factors when considering growing and processing conditions and energy use.

Ideally we could create a model that varies for origin. We could then ask fascinating questions, for example: if a Brazilian coffee harvested in a certain way is environmentally superior when made into a capsule, is it still superior when compared to an Ethiopian lot made in a French press?

A lot of research in coffee, regardless of the field, often suffers from only being representative of one type of coffee.

Takeaway coffee cups 

Takeaway coffee cups are an area of visible waste that is also receiving a lot of attention. The problem with recycling capsules is the same as cups. It is about separating materials that need to be recycled separately. This means, that either unique recycling processes are needed or that it is not viable to recycle at all.

The problems with cups are not just that the plastic lining needs to be separated from the paper body, but that the paper is often not a great quality for recycling.

One interesting idea comes from a project called NextCupCycle from Professors Dr Edward Kosior and Dr John Mitchell in conjunction with Nextek and Ashortwalk. Counterintuitively this project seeks actually use more plastic per cup and move the ratio to a 50/50 mix of paper and plastic.

The rationale behind this approach is rooted in realising that it is difficult to separate the plastic from the paper in takeaway cups. This then leaves you with a pretty useless material to recycle.

A 50/50 mix however would have the properties to be recycled into a touch resin that could have multiple uses in other products.

The word could is important here. NextCupCycle have an impressive commitment to seeking to build their own recycling plants as normal authorities and systems would not be able to process the cups.

This is much like Nespresso’s own recycling schemes that display an incredible system to recycle their own coffee capsules. The contentious issue is that uptake tends to be extremely low for these bespoke recycling system as they require customers to go outside of their regular recycling habits. Nespresso’s exact uptake figures are not disclosed, but they are working on initiatives to bridge the gap such as working directly with councils.

The second consideration here is the actual ability for the recycled materials to have a useful and meaningful second life. Aluminium is very successfully recycled, but a new resin like the one from the 50/50 cup idea would need to find its way into supply chains to actually see a recycled use.

Another innovative product being released into this sector is called the Green Your cup. This solution builds takeaway cups in a way where the inner plastic ling can be easily removed allowing the paper to be recycled separately.

Then there is the consideration of biodegradable and compostable materials. I had no idea until recently but interestingly, compostable is basically bio degradable with added benefits. To be certified biodegradable a material can have traces of certain metals, but a compostable material must be able to become a positive element of a mulch in a compost that can be used to grow things.

There are all sorts of interesting considerations here, such as the land use for the plant materials that make up these products, and when considering coffee bag packaging, that often only element of the bag are degradable or compostable. This is often where Life Cycle analysis can really help.

Every facet of coffee has a sustainability consideration and impact.

There is much I haven’t covered in this article, such as climate change and disease, with their impact on the sustainability of coffee production.

Price and value of coffee farming combined with political and cultural elements will always continue to impact on the sustainability of growing coffee at all.

I think that a continuing focus on coffee sustainability is in many ways linked to the sheer size of coffee consumption and therefore the impact of these elements when combined across such a huge audience, with concern of the ability for coffee production to meet supply demands a serious consideration in the future.

This article doesn’t really intend to tell you, the reader what to do or how to drink coffee in a specific way, it is more of an attempt to share thoughts and research on the subject and write down my own.

We hope to be able to publish our life cycle work soon and to be able to do more work on the subject in the future.

Coffee is an incredible drink and of course we want to find the most sustainable way to produce and drink it. This is of course not to under value the incredible work of many in coffee to constantly seek to improve its sustainability across the four domains of politics, economics, ecology and culture. It is this desire in speciality coffee to improve everything about coffee, making it as perfect as possible, that is one of its shining lights.

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