What Is Coffee Waste and How to Stop it

Coffee is a drink that’s very connected with culture. Many countries have their own traditions, recipes and rituals when it comes to it and there are very few countries in the world you wouldn’t find it.

But how does our consumption of it affect our environment? Who is wasting coffee and how can we do better? These are the questions we will try to answer today.

Here is what we will cover:

  • Who is wasting coffee
  1. How coffee production generates waste
  2. How coffee consumption generates waste
  • How to manage coffee waste
  1. Solutions for the production stage
  2. Solutions for the consumption stage
  • What now?

Who is wasting coffee?

The coffee beans must first take a very long journey and pass by quite a few hands before they end up in our cup. The so-called bean-to-cup process includes stages such as cultivating, harvesting, processing, quality control, importing, roasting, packaging, distributing and brewing.

This process of coffee production generates a lot of waste that we might not have considered before. However, coffee waste is also generated by coffee consumption in many ways. Let’s find out how!

How coffee production generates waste

Coffee farms

brown wooden table with blue plastic basket

During the processing of coffee beans in coffee farms, almost 1.2 million tons of garbage from coffee bean hulls (parchment skin) and an additional 43,000 tons of garbage from coffee bean silver skins are generated worldwide.

Coffee bean husks remain in large quantities in the country of production and contaminate agricultural fields. What’s more, processing the coffee beans requires certain equipment and material which most of the time releases harmful chemicals in the water.

Unfortunately this polluted water has the potential to damage crops or endanger the health of local communities if they consume it. 

Coffee roasters

round clear plastic container

We talk a lot about waste management in coffee farms and at home but we often forget about the roasting stage. According to Latimore, “the roasting, packaging, and distribution of coffee accounts for about 15% of its total carbon footprint on its journey from seed to cup.” 

Unfortunately, most of the equipment roasters use is meant to make their lives easier, not to be eco-friendly. They also tend to work a lot with single-use items and solid waste that can be broken down completely. What’s more they also use a lot of energy 

Coffee shops

man facing coffeemaker at cafe

Yes, coffee shops are an important stage of coffee production too. Customers might not notice this but a lot of waste can be generated during the process of brewing a cup of coffee, like used coffee grounds and leftover milk.

To-go cups are also an issue. As Johnson puts it, coffee shops hand out an estimated 250 billion paper cups every year, which go straight to landfills. Even the cups that say they’re recyclable on the packaging are misleading, because the infrastructure to recycle them is very expensive and doesn’t exist in many municipalities.

What’s more, coffee shops use a lot of energy and water every day which can have a significant impact on the environment. So, they definitely have a big role to play in managing coffee waste better. 

How coffee consumption generates waste

So, what about consumption? Much like the coffee production stage, the consumers also play a role in generating coffee waste. Some examples are the use of to-go cups, the wrong waste management of used coffee grounds, coffee packaging and coffee capsules.

To-go cups

two women holding drinks on wooden surface

To-go cups should be a no-go. Why? A few figures from the Bavarian State Ministry for the Environment and Consumer Protection: To-go cups are used on average for 15 minutes, then they end up in the trash. Or right on the street or in the meadow. Around 320,000 disposable cups are used every hour. 

That adds up to three billion cups per year. Their production requires tens of thousands of tons of wood and plastic as well as billions of liters of water. A monstrous virtual footprint! These resources are wasted because to-go cups can be difficult to recycle depending on their material.

Coffee packaging and capsules

coffee capsules

We have talked about sustainable coffee packaging and capsules before and that’s because it’s a big topic of conversation towards sustainable coffee waste management. The truth of the matter is, many of us are not properly informed on how to dispose of coffee packaging and capsules.

That’s all due to the material. Knowing the difference between recyclable, biodegradable, compostable is not straightforward, nor is knowing if aluminium capsules are better than plastic ones. Which is why a lot of coffee waste stems from the incorrect disposal of materials. 

Used coffee grounds and storage 

coffee storage

Choosing the right storage method and container for your coffee is vital because it prolongs its shelf-life. Many actually find that their coffee goes stale quickly just because of that, so they are more likely to buy a new bag of coffee and throw out the old one, even though this is an issue that could have been avoided by storing coffee better.

On the other hand, owners of espresso machines that have portafilters have to deal with used coffee grounds. Most of the time coffee grounds end up in the wrong waste, generally in landfill. However there are much better ways of disposing of them or even reuse them

How to manage coffee waste 

Fortunately, the coffee industry has started focusing a lot on finding sustainable solutions across the coffee chain. Plus more and more people are realising how important it is to be knowledgeable about waste management.

Below are some solutions to manage coffee waste better and work towards a more eco-friendly approach.

Solutions for the production stage

  • Farmers can reuse husks for other agricultural purposes like growing mushrooms or add them in cattle food due to their nutrients
  • By obtaining certifications, farms can developing sustainable farming practice
  • Roasters can recycle their own water and reuse it 
  • They can also find replacements for as many single-use products as they can
  • Good maintenance and cleaning of roasting equipment can prolong its lifespan and energy usage
  • Baristas can get into the habit of weighing the coffee so as to not waste any
  • Coffee shops can standardise the use of reusable cups instead of to-go cups
  • Milk dispensing system installation will save a lot of milk
  • Coffee shops can work with the community to reuse coffee grounds, coffee bags and packaging 

Solutions for the consumption stage

  • Start storing your coffee properly to prolong its lifespan by using the right container
  • Use recipes to brew your coffee so as to minimise wasting unused coffee grounds
  • Use scales to weigh your coffee
  • Find out how to properly dispose of the coffee packaging and/or capsules you are using
  • Invest in a reusable mug
  • Find creative ways to reuse your used coffee grounds 

What now?

The coffee industry and the consumers are becoming more and more environmentally conscious but the truth is sometimes the overload of information out there can be overwhelming. 

Just remember you don’t have to do everything at once or get it right from the first time. The first step is educating yourself on how coffee production and consumption affects our environment and what we can do about it.

Then there are a lot of ways you can take action. There are actually many inspiring businesses and start-ups out there that are reusing coffee compounds and coffee grounds in very cool and unusual ways.

But even disposing materials correctly can have a positive impact on our ecosystem. I hope this article will give you the incentive to get started!

nv-author-image

Vasileia Fanarioti

My name is Vasileia and I’m here because i decided to combine my two favourite things: writing and coffee. Don’t ever make me choose between filter and espresso, although I do have a soft spot for flat whites. I love travelling around the world and visiting coffee shops but my biggest goal is to visit a few coffee farms, to see where it all starts. Hopefully soon I’ll take you there through my articles.