As lovers of coffee, tea and chocolate, we are all pretty high-rate daily consumers. Whilst individually our contribution might be small, collectively it makes a big difference if we strive to incorporate sustainable coffee, tea and chocolate in our consumption habits.
How do I define ‘sustainable’ in this context? I think it should include both environmental and social sustainability – minimising the footprint on the environment due to our consumption habits, and supporting healthy and livable communities who produce the coffee beans, tea leaves and cacao beans.
So, let’s get started!
Making a difference: where to start
You can indulge and make a positive difference to the world at the same time. With our tips, you will have guilt-free enjoyment of sustainable coffee, chocolate and more in no time.
We think about the carbon footprint created by processing or importing produce when this is not the only way we can negatively impact the environment through poor shopping choices.
The right brands of our little luxuries like coffee and chocolate can minimise impacts upon the natural environment, as well as the local inhabitants of the land where they are grown.
And the way we choose to dispose of the waste left by our tea, coffee and chocolate enjoyment also has a massive impact.
Here’s what you need to watch out for, and some suggestions of brands that you can be sure are ethically and sustainably sourced.
Sustainable enjoyment of coffee, tea and chocolate
Sustainable coffee, tea and chocolate
Fairtrade coffee, tea and chocolate products are sourced through small farmers and ensure these producers are paid fair wages and work within favourable working conditions. Fairtrade companies are also required to invest a certain amount of money back into the local community where they source their produce.
You could go the extra mile to make sure that you are buying sustainable coffee from a social enterprise and/or ethical roaster (such as World Vision’s Little Things Coffee or Rumble Coffee who has a Transparency Project on fair coffee pricing). Fortunately, you can be good to the environment and the people throughout the supply chain without comprising on your love of high-quality coffee!
Look for certification on the packaging such as Rainforest Alliance and Australian Certified Organic. This means that the coffee farming methods are eco-friendly, including less likelihood of any of the following practices:
• Deforestation and destruction of natural habitats to make room for coffee plantations
• Less use of chemicals and water in the processing steps.
There are also tea bushes that are semi-wild, which means that the tea production is organic, as human cultivation is of a lesser scale compared to tea plantations.
For instance, Wooree Tea sources their Korean tea in small batches from the semi-wild tea bushes at Jirisan National Park, Hwage Valley, South Korea. These tea bushes have self-propagated from original tea plants from centuries ago. Small batches that are hand-picked mean that the environment is protected while excellent tea is produced.
There are also businesses which strive to make a difference to the lives of the farmers and their families through social sustainability. For instance, Rumble Coffee has a Transparency Project on fair coffee pricing so that coffee farmers are paid fairly for their efforts. Or Wooree Tea who donates money and English books to the children of tea farmers so that they can obtain a decent education. Admittedly, we can only enjoy coffee, tea and chocolate through efforts of the farmers. If we can make a difference to their lives, why shouldn’t we?
Buy from small-scale and local businesses
Did you know that Australia produces some fabulous teas in our own tea plantations? Sourcing locally is definitely a good way to reduce the carbon miles.
Buying from small-scale local businesses also helps the local economy to remain economically sustainable.
For instance, the artisan tea makers of Arakai Estate runs a sustainable tea plantation. The tea bushes are part of a larger farm system that includes large areas of plantation timber – carbon sequestration and timber production in one combined with superb nature habitat for the long life of the plantation. This contributes to keeping the area of the plantation healthy and biologically thriving, producing excellent teas.
Look for milk and sugar alternatives
Whatever drink you favour, if you include milk in it, the carbon footprint from milk will typically become the dominant contributor compared to the cultivation of the coffee or tea.
One reason for this counter-intuitively large contribution is that milk comes from cows, which, as ruminant animals, belch a lot of methane into the air. And methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Additionally, the energy and resources that go into harvesting animal products are massive when compared to the footprint created in plant-based production.
For people looking for the most socially conscious choice, plant-based milk may be a better option, including almond milk, coconut milk, soy milk or rice milk. Look for organic dairy farmers or source locally via a co-operative wherever you can to reduce carbon footprints.
Sugarcane farming is a water-intensive crop and can threaten natural environments in Australia if done improperly, including polluting waterways with pesticides and fertilizer, using excess fresh water and habitat and land degradation.
Consider using alternatives to sugar, such as raw organic honey, pure maple syrup, agave syrup, and date sugar. Or better still, drink without sugar.
It is unfortunately common these days to find products that are of single-use, but need not be so. This is especially true of take-away drinks, and we need to change our perspective of letting convenience trump environmental considerations.
There is no excuse for single use when it comes to take-away coffee, tea or hot chocolate. Buy a reusable take-away cup and take it with you everywhere you go – skip the need for yet another disposable cup, and you can usually save a little off the cost of your drink at participating cafes as well.
The latest reusable cups are silicone and collapsible, so you can even bend and squash them into the back pocket of your jeans when not in use.
You can also source some pretty innovatively made reusable cups, including some made from bamboo and rice husks, such as those from Ecoffee Cup.
You can even go one step further and use a reusable drinks tray (such as this one from Stay Tray) when you are doing the coffee run for the office or friends, instead of the paper single-use drinks tray.
When buying your products look for packaging that avoids mixed materials (such as paper with a foil backing, or plastic-coated cardboard cups like many of those used for coffee). Many recycling facilities do not deal with mixed materials, and the waste then gets landfilled.
Stay away from anything with a plastic layer as well. Stick with plain paper and foil on their own as separate layers because these can be recycled. Look wherever possible for zero-waste packaging, so that you can completely recycle any packaging you do use.
One company that prides itself on using 100% recyclable or compostable packaging is Loving Earth, makers of awesome chocolate with guilt-free wrappers. On the same vein of awesomeness, Andi’s Really Healthy Chocolate uses ethically sourced cacao for their chocolates and their packaging uses recycled paper without aluminium foil packaging.
If your absolute favourite indulgent treat comes in plastic and you aren’t ready to give it up (and we can completely appreciate that), then look into a plastics recycling option like REDcycle. You can recycle all plastics including plastic bags and plastic film and wrappers at collection bins at many main supermarkets as well as other locations. For locations for REDcycle bins, see here https://www.redcycle.net.au/where-to-redcycle/.
Loose leaf tea
In terms of your daily cup of tea, it is far better for the environment if you use loose leaf tea rather than tea bags (and put the used leaves into the compost).
Most tea bags go straight in the bin and end up in landfill. Many people put their tea bags into compost but many tea bags have plastic in their make-up, and are not always compostable. The slightly preferable alternative in this case would be to rip apart the tea bag, compost the contents and dispose of the bag separately.
Where possible, opt for tea merchants who sell tea in reusable tea caddies or bulk buy tea to minimise packaging.
To use a pod or not, that’s the question
Coffee pods are well-loved for its convenience. Pop the pod into your machine, and within a minute or so, your machine brews you a cup of coffee.
But what is the price you pay for such convenience? The single use design of disposable pods, with its mixture of plastic, aluminium and organic material within doesn’t lend itself to easy reuse, recycling or composting.
The most environmentally friendly way is of course not to use a coffee pod machine. There are better ways to make coffee that wouldn’t cost as much, and ground coffee on its own can go straight to the home compost.
But if you are not ready to give it up yet, there are ways that you could minimise the impact.
The very least you could do is to send the pods back for recycling. Nespresso collects their pods for such a purpose, and Terracycle collects and recycles free of charge for Nespresso, Dolce Gusto, L’OR and Moccona capsules.
The other alternative is to cut down or totally eliminate single-use coffee pods. In a disposable pod, the machine pierces the pod and high-pressure hot water is passed through the pod to extract the coffee. Once the pod is punctured, it cannot be reused.
However, a stainless steel reusable coffee pod like Pod Star has small holes on the top and bottom, allowing the water to pass through without the need for perforation by the machine. This then enables such a pod to be reused again and again.
All you need to do is unscrew the top lid, fill your pod with your preferred ground coffee by pressing firmly (but not too hard), level off the coffee when it reaches the top of the pod, brush any coffee remnants away from the pod and screw the lid back on.
Then pop the pod into a Nespresso machine (or whichever machine is compatible to your reusable pod) for your cup of coffee.
There are also pods which claim to be biodegrable or compostable. Be aware of greenwashing though. Biodegradability or compostability means nothing if the right conditions (sunlight, microbial activity, water and oxygen) do not exist.
You buy a biodegradable or compostable pods with the best of intentions. But be aware that oftentimes “compostable” actually refers to industrial compostability, and your council may not accept such pods for composting.
Home composting does not reach the kind of controlled conditions of a municipal or industrial composting plant, rendering such green labelling irrelevant in many cases.
Eventually, that would mean chucking such pods into landfill. A landfill is tightly packed and covered, so things simply don’t degrade completely or don’t degrade at all.
In the Australian context, what would be more useful is to find out whether the compostable pod you intend to buy is home-compostable (Australian Standard AS 5810–2010 – Biodegradable plastics suitable for home composting).
This means it can go into a home compost bin, and therefore more likely to get composted if your council doesn’t accept compostable coffee pods.
You have the deciding power
Keep your indulgence, but minimise impact to the planet and her people at the same time.
While recycling and composting are better than sending things to landfill, they’re still a lot worse than not using those resources in the first place.
Transition into a sustainable coffee, tea and chocolate lifestyle and as empowered consumers, demand your favourite brands keep up with the eco-conscious times.
It will be simple now that you know how!
Wishing you a great day,
Suk-yi is a caffeine lover, blogger, entrepreneur, air quality consultant, environmentalist, world citizen, wife and mother. She explores various topics related to coffee, tea, chocolate and everything in between on her blog. Make sure to follow her on her Facebook Page, Instagram Page and Pinterest Page.