Wake Up and Smell the Coffee Emissions

Posted by Chris O’Brien

Many people concerned about coffee and sustainability are aware of important issues related to organic agriculture, preservation of the forest canopy and bird habitat, and equitable trading partnerships between farmers and importers/roasters/retailers.

But what about air pollution?

Green coffee beans contain a wide variety of chemical compounds including proteins, fats, sugars, dextrine, cellulose, caffeine, and organic acids. Some of these volatize, oxidize, or decompose (i.e. become pollution) as part of the roasting process. Consequently, toxic compounds such as aldehydes (as in formaldehyde), organic acids (such as acetic acid) and acrolein are emitted as a result of the coffee roasting process.

The EPA regulates these emissions according to classes of pollution: particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, organic acids, and natural gas combustion products.

Here’s the EPA’s flow chart of the emissions created by coffee processing.

Roaster emissions

Okay, so roasting causes emissions, but it looks like a lot of this is particulate matter (PM). PM is basically airborne dust and dirt. Raking leaves creates particulate matter – soil and dust catching air from rustling up the leaves. That doesn’t exactly sound like a problem worthy of much concern. But the smoke from diesel fuel is also PM – that seems a little worse. Smog is also partly comprised of PM. According to the EPA, PM can cause coughing and contribute to asthma and other respiratory problems. But here’s the real kicker: exposure to PM is linked with premature death.

On top of that, coffee roasting also emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which is a complicated way of saying all sorts of air pollution. And finally, roasting emits greenhouse gases such as carbon, methane and nitrous oxide.

Here is an EPA chart of coffee roasting emissions in pounds of emissions per ton of coffee roasted. It gives a whole new meaning to the expression “wake up and smell the coffee.” If you’re reading this and you know of any roasters doing something to address emissions, please submit a comment or email me directly using the Contact form on this blog.

Roaster emissions


7 Responses to Wake Up and Smell the Coffee Emissions

  1. dean cycon says:

    Thanks for a great article! We have been troubled by coffee emissions for a long time. The only choices for remediation have been to just let the stuff fly or to burn it off with massive incinerators called afterburners. I remeber watching the million BTU heat plume coming out of our afterburner. Sure it obliterated the particulates and the smell, but it also punched a monster hole in the ozone layer right over Dean’s Beans beanery! We desperately wanted to do something, but nothing was available. So we looked at how the really Dirty Boys cleaned up their air acts. We discovered that coal fired power plants used a combination of wet scrubbing and electrostatic precipitation to control nasty emissions. Hey, I thought, that’s a shower and a bug zapper! With a little help from NASA (yes, that’s right!), we designed and built a trial model, got it approved by the town board of health, and then spent some big bucks to take it to scale. We call it the WetZap, and it knocks out about half the smoke and all of the visible particulates. We are the first in the industry to do this and will make plans available for one and all after we do a second generation system that works even better!

    Thinking outside of the box works!

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  7. Anne Morrissey says:

    I live right behind an establishment who roast their beans & I often wonder if the “smell of toast”which starts late morning then progressively becomes quite strong moving into late afternoon is actually the smell of roasting coffee beans.
    I’ve also noted the balcony has a fine film of blackish residue when I swift it with a dry mop, could this be the residue?
    Love to know!

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