Saskatchewan·Opinion

Disposable coffee cups shouldn't be your biggest environmental concern — it's the coffee itself

With the proposed ban on single-use plastics, coffee bars like mine in Regina may have to rethink our take-out cup options. But that is a minor issue compared to the problems faced by coffee producers in becoming more environmentally sustainable: They often don’t have the money to.
'Coffee is one of life's small luxuries from a fragile crop, grown with great skill and produced via an extremely complex process, half a world away from us. If you view it like that, it's easy to see that our $2 price tag is the real problem, not what you drink it out of,' writes Annabel Townsend. ( Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The disposable coffee cup you may be sipping out of while reading this is one of 4.3 million Canadians get through every day.

I say "disposable" because even though those adult sippy cups have cardboard exteriors and we'd like to think they're more environmentally friendly than their Styrofoam cousins, they are actually lined with plastic to make them waterproof, thus rendering them destined for the dump.

With the proposed federal ban on single-use plastics, coffee bars like mine in Regina may have to rethink our take-out cup options. I did invest in biodegradable cups and lids for a while at nearly twice the price of my regular cups, but they proved too expensive for a small operation like mine. I know this can partially be solved by encouraging people to invest in travel mugs, and I will start selling those in my shop. 

But that is a minor issue compared to the problems faced by coffee producers in becoming more environmentally sustainable: They often don't have the money to.

Last month, I travelled to Guatemala for the Coffee Producers and Roasters Forum, where I had the opportunity to visit working coffee farms. 

Annabel Townsend recently attended the Coffee Producers and Roasters Forum in Guatemala, where she got to visit coffee farms. (Annabel Townsend)

Most Guatemalan farms are small, and coffee production is a precarious business. As in other coffee producing countries, most farms are under three hectares in size, and the annual crop of coffee represents a significant portion of many farmers' income for the year. Aside from the low global price of coffee, farmers are finding their yield is smaller and farming is more difficult as a result of the changing climate and recent unpredictable weather patterns.

I naively asked one farm owner how he felt about environmental sustainability, and got a blunt response: "Do you know what the best thing we can do for the environment is? Just not grow coffee."

Some methods that farmers employ can make coffee production more sustainable, such as using the discarded coffee fruit as fertilizer for the next crop. 

Shade growing is also important. Farmers grow other plants in among the coffee trees to shade them as they mature. This not only improves the quality of the coffee at harvest time, it also protects the biodiversity of the area that would otherwise be stripped away to make way for the crop.

Coffee beans have to be washed in fresh water to remove the sticky layer between the fruit and the beans. (Annabel Townsend)

The environmental degradation from a coffee farm is still significant, however. Coffee usually requires some pesticide use, and there's a loss of animal and bird habitats. The environmental cost of moving coffee around is also considerable. 

Polluted water can also be a problem. Coffee beans have to be washed in fresh water to remove the sticky layer between the fruit and the beans. All that sweetened, acidic water then drains into the ground, destroying the nutrients in the soil.

This can be prevented by collecting the run-off water, purifying it and reusing it — if the farmers had access to water purification resources. The majority cannot afford this, and the few that can are often too remotely located to be able to share.

The global commodity price for coffee at the moment is around $1 per pound, which in some cases is below the cost of production. (Annabel Townsend)

At the Forum, we spent a day tasting a hypertension-causing amount of coffee grown on the farms we'd visited. These coffees ranged from $2.80 per pound up to $11 per pound for an exceptional honey Gesha. 

Those prices were for green (raw) coffee beans, and were what the farmers were actually asking. It really isn't much for a year's hard work, but often they would be negotiated way down from there. The global commodity price for coffee at the moment is around $1 per pound, which in some cases is below the cost of production.

I returned from Guatemala with a renewed passion for coffee, but also with a more concerned attitude toward selling it in my little cafe. 

One simple thing that would make a much bigger difference to the world is to pay more for our coffee. As a business owner, I need to make sure the farmer gets a fair share of the price I pay for raw beans, so they can afford to farm more sustainably. I should encourage my customers to be prepared to pay higher prices for higher quality. 

Coffee is one of life's small luxuries from a fragile crop, grown with great skill and produced via an extremely complex process, half a world away from us. If you view it like that, it's easy to see that our $2 price tag is the real problem, not what you drink it out of.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Annabel Townsend is a writer and coffee geek from the U.K., now settled in Regina. She owns The Penny University Bookstore and can often be found delivering books and coffee around the city on a bakfiet cargobike.

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