Finding a sustainable cup of coffee

To obtain a more sustainable cup of coffee consider: what kind of coffee to purchase, where to purchase it, how it was brewed, how to consume it, and how to dispose of it.

By now you have probably heard about sustainability and how people are increasing the sustainability of the products you buy. But what does that mean? How can we make more decisions that lead us on a path toward sustainability that enables us to meet the needs of the present without sacrificing future generations’ ability to meet their needs as well? Consider a decision about your morning coffee. While Michigan State University Extension considers the health benefits of coffee, how can one make more sustainable decisions regarding your morning coffee? What criteria can you use?

First, consider how the coffee was grown. Organic coffee eliminates potential chemical applications that could unintentionally harm animals, plants, water (ecological integrity) and people (social justice). Also consider whether the coffee received a fair trade certification label that ensures growers receive a substantial share of the profits (economic vitality) where growers and their communities participate in the decisionmaking process (civic engagement). Fair trade designations also ensure fair treatment of growers without discrimination (social justice). Look for informative labels that appear on coffee bags (aesthetic understanding). However, not all labels and certifications represent the same kinds of ecological, social and economic characteristics (critical thinking). For more information, see the work of Michigan State University professor Paulette Stenzel.

A more sustainable cup of coffee protects ecosystems in terms of animals (shade grown trees provide habitat for birds and insects), plants (shade grown plantations can grow without destroying existing forests), and water (organic growing methods eliminate the risk of pesticides and herbicides getting into streams or drinking water). A more intact forest ensures a wide range of plants and animals contribute to pollination of flowers and agricultural crops. Michigan State University has worked collaboratively with coffee growers in Rwanda to protect the environment and improve livelihoods.

Also consider low-impact energy sources involved in roasting and grinding the beans, and percolating the coffee. Importing coffee from far away tropical places results in air pollution due to transportation. Purchasing locally-roasted coffee contributes to a local or regional economy. Identifying local or regional coffee producers gets difficult given the range in products that companies sell. Michigan State University professor Phil Howard developed some creative graphics that helps people identify fair trade coffee retailers. You can decide how you brew the coffee or which coffee shop uses energy-efficient coffee makers, and where you can purchase those energy efficient machines. Purchase coffee roasted in or served in a certified green or energy efficient building (shelter). Purchase a reusable coffee mug made of recycled (and recyclable) materials instead of a disposable coffee cup to reduce waste into the landfill. A recycled paper cup is less unsustainable than a non-recycled cup, but using a reusable mug is more sustainable.

In summary, to obtain a more sustainable cup of coffee consider: what kind of coffee to purchase, where to purchase it, how it was brewed, how to consume it and how to dispose of it.

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