Talking Trash about Coffee

May 16, 2008


Posted by Chris O’Brien

An article in the Seattle Times this past Wednesday claims that Starbucks’ vice president of corporate social responsibility “knows it’s an issue” that the company’s coffee cups are single-use disposable trash that can’t be recycled.

The company’s 2.5 billion paper cups used in North American stores last year contain 10% post consumer waste (PCW) recycled fiber content, and the cup sleeves contain 60% PCW content; both attributes are improvements considering that the cups used to be 100% virgin and “double-cupping” was a common wasteful practice that was mostly made obsolete by the sleeves.

But the cups are still lined with plastic, and that makes them non-recyclable. There are new coffee cups on the market, like the ecotainer (which I wrote about here), that replace that plastic lining with a starch-based material, which makes them compostable. But a compostable cup does not compost make. Just like a ‘recyclable’ aluminum can has to actually be recycled in order to gain the benefit of its recycability, so a compostable cup needs to enter a composting system in order to realize its environmental advantages. That’s a bit of a challenge since composting infrastructure is fairly limited in the U.S.

However, it is certainly possible to arrange composting services independently, and there is a growing number of compostable products: food serviceware, garbage liners, and packaging products. The Biodegradable Products Institute website lists all the companies with products that meet the BPI standard for compostability. Only products that meet these standards are allowed to display the BPI logo (seen here at top). Composting is a heady matter, requiring specific conditions regarding light, temperature and moisture. In other words, simply tossing a cup in landfill and waiting decades or centuries for it to degrade doesn’t count.

Bottoms Up!My prediction is that government will eventually provide composting services the same way it now offers recycling services in many places. Meanwhile, I like the approach taken by Higher Grounds (my co-bloggers here at BeanActivist). They simply don’t offer disposable cups. Instead, if you forget to bring your own reusable mug, they’ll give you one! That’s right, they’ll give you a ceramic mug to takeaway. How can they afford that? Simple answer: craigslist. They post want ads for free coffee mugs on craigslist. Imagine all the tacky, unloved mugs stuffing cupboards across America, like that “bottoms-up” mug you received at your bachelor party from your high school buddy. Now imagine someone who is willing to take them away from you for free and put them to good use. It’s simply brilliant.

Don’t expect Starbucks to attempt this novel approach any time soon. They are currently experimenting with the compostable variety so we’ll have to see what happens.


Looking for Justice and Sustainability at Coffee Fest DC

February 16, 2008

Posted by Chris O’Brien

I’ve been looking forward to this for about a month. Finally the Coffee Fest as arrived – and I’m sick as a dog.

I had planned on taking a couple of the $95 seminars on cupping and blending but frankly I couldn’t smell the difference between a cup of Rwandan Zirikana and a piece of burnt toast right now. I’ve had the worst cold of my life for five weeks now. It hit me the day I landed in Colombia for coffee coop visits and I haven’t been able to shake it yet. In fact it’s gotten so bad I even – gasp – went to see a doctor. Four days on prescription meds and I’m still clogged up, congested, bronchially infected and generally down and out and dejected.

So I skipped the costly (but probably worthwhile) training classes and barely managed to haul my belling-aching ass to the show at all today. I traversed the whole show floor in less than two hours. It was a little smaller than I expected, which was a relief since I was so sick, but made the $30 door charge seem slightly steep. I tried to get in on a press pass but got no response at all from my emailed request. So right off the bat I was going in already docking them points for poor media relations.

My goals ranged from seeking sustainable packaging and serviceware, talking with roasters, importers and certifiers about sustainable trade issues, and looking for roasting equipment for my own possible coffee roastery business (shh, that’s kind of a secret). I left mildly better informed on each of these points.

Here’s what I learned.

Marketing claims about ‘green’ packaging and service items were all over the place. In fact, the majority of the booths offering these products made some kind of eco-assertion.


EcoSleeve. Made from polystyrene, this cup sleeve is marketed as “100% recyclable.” The bad news is that polystyrene, a.k.a. styrofoam, a.k.a. #6 plastic, is NOT recyclable where I live. As one might expect of one of the most liberal counties in America, Montgomery County, Maryland has a robust curbside recycling program, and even sponsors a free waste veggie oil exchange program in order to encourage conversion of this byproduct into useful biodiesel. If styrofoam is not recyclable here I wonder where it is recyclable.

EcoSleeve also claims to be “#100% biodegradable.” I’ve never heard this claim about styrofoam before, but the product brochure references a certification by EcoLogo, a credible eco-certification program that I’m very familiar with from first hand experience with the people who run the company. In fact, I’m giving a series of seminars in California next week with one of their VPs. I’ll have to make a note to ask him about this product because he is fond of noting in his presentations that biodegradability claims are generally bogus since nothing degrades in a sealed landfill. The EcoSleeve website further claims that one sleeve produces 66% less waste than a paper sleeve. That seems vague since it leaves me wondering whether the product itself just has less mass or if they are accounting for all the waste in the respective manufacturing processes, or what.

Despite the EcoLogo certification, the combination of three dubious claims (recyclability, biodegradability, waste-reduction) earns this product a double thumbs down from me.

GreenGood. This company produces PLA cups and containers; plates, clamshells, and other containers, made from recycled paper pulp and sugarcane waste; and 42% post-consumer waste recycled plastic cup lids. PLA stands for polylactic acid, which basically means plant-based plastic as opposed to plastic derived from petroleum. This is generally a good alternative to regular plastic, especially if you have a composting program for the used cups. However, my sense is that prices are steeper than conventional plastic plus PLA has the disadvantage of breaking down when exposed to sunlight or high temperatures. The good news is these guys also sell something called CPLA, or crystallized PLA. The science is lost on me but the salesman explained that it’s a microwaveable version of PLA, but it too has a performance tradeoff in that the crystallization process turns transparent PLA into a tan opaque color, thus obscuring the beverage.

Ag waste and recycled paper are definitely better options than virgin paper pulp. And the recycled plastic lids seem like a pretty good no brainer. I wasn’t able to do a cost comparison on any of the above because there were no price lists. But if you’re looking for solid environmental benefits, GreenGood seems to deliver.

CupCoatCupCoat. Why is everything twowords combined into one these days? CupCoat is reusable “fabric” cup sleeve claiming to be environmentally preferable because it replaces multiple disposable sleeves. The promotional literature claims that one CupCoat saves “approximately 2-5 lbs of garbage per person.” Hunh? How ever did they arrive at that number. The “coats” are made of such eco-friendly materials as “faux-fur” (okay, that tells me what it’s not, but it doesn’t tell me what it is), “rubberized synthetics” and “waterproofed t-shirt material.” Not sure what the second one is there either but the last one is apparently an obfuscating way of saying “cotton,” which happens to be the most chemical input-intensive crop on the planet. Sorry CupCoat, you are way bogus. Oh, except you almost won me over with the “T-zur” line. I’m a sucker for animal prints.

ecotainer Hot Cups. These are apparently an International Paper product marketed under the brand JavaStock. The ecotainer ™ is simple a virgin fiber paper cup with a PLA lining instead of a regular petro-plastic lining, earning it a BPI Certification. That’s a new one to me but on first glance the certification looks legit. Unfortunately, there’s a hefty price premium for this eco-benefit. For example, 1000 8 oz. ecotainer cups cost $82 compared to $59.40 for the regular kind. Seems steep and for that price I’d think you could get some recycled content fiber in there too. This gets a marginal thumbs up on the environmental improvement but a big wet raspberry for the jacked up price.

Rainforest Alliance
. I talked with the folks from Rainforest Alliance about how their sustainability standard stacks up against the many other coffee certification schemes. The staff rep at the booth asserted that its “up there with Fair Trade and organic” and emphasized its focus on “conservation” whereas Fair Trade addresses “trade.” I asked who pays and how the label is applied to products. Confusingly, he said anyone along the chain of supply can pay, but when I pressed him for a firm answer it became clear that ultimately farmers must pay the costs unless some generous partner offers to pay it for them. He also explained that there is a “traceability” system that serves to verify a company’s right to use the logo, but when I asked how a coffee drinker could access that traceability system he allowed that they couldn’t and the best they can do is ask a roaster for their certificate. We weren’t able to get into much more detail but this conversation highlighted to me how the trade and environmental communities continue to see themselves as separate instead of focusing on their obvious commonalities. Ultimately, long-term sustainability must include people and the planet.

Fair Trade Proof. I was happy to then run into Tripp and other good folks associated with Cafe Campesino. Finally a friendly face in what was mostly a sea of food-colored-syrup-flavored “coffee” drinks. I indulged in a cup of medium roast Colombian since he offered and because I was kinda grooving on the fact that I had just visited Fondo Paez, the coop that grows these very beans. I asked Tripp about whether CC had considered Rainforest Alliance certification and his direct answer was that there was no way they could ask their producer partners to pay for another certification. He also thought that organic certification more or less covered what was important in terms of shade canopy and that this extra certification would be like “splitting hairs.”

Cafe Campesino

I’m not convinced on this latter point (and I’d advise Tripp not to say such a thing to the bloggers over at Coffee and Conservation!) but I do see the inherent contradiction in holding growers responsible for the costs of certification in general, be it Rainforest Alliance or otherwise. It forces the good guys to pay for being good while letting the polluters/exploiters off scot-free. But the advantage is that it provides transparency to business claims about justice and sustainability. Cafe Campesino, and it’s importer Cooperative Coffees, will soon be launching an online transparency program called Fair Trade Proof that allows regular old everyday coffee drinkers to access company trade documents which show producer origin and payments. This is a significant stride forward in terms of truly transparent business and I look forward to announcing the launch when its ready. But I think you can already take a sneak peak now, just click the link above.

Direct Trade. Speaking of transparency, my next stop was Intelligentsia Coffee right across the aisle. They treated me to a Rwandan Zirikana and I spoke with a company rep who explained a little bit about their “Direct Trade” business model. Importantly, he first mentioned that it incorporates quality. Many certification programs for other unrelated products are going this same direction. For example, Green Seal launched a new certification last year for recycled content paint which incorporated performance standards from the Master Painters Institute. This is a significant trend because it helps dispel any notion that going “green” or “fair” means a compromise in quality. The myth that green equals poor quality has slowed the uptake of sustainable products for decades.

But Direct Trade, as far as anyone has been able to explain to me so far, including this rep from Intelligentsia, is not a certification and as far as I can tell it isn’t even a standard. It is really just a company (and a couple other companies they like) making unsubstantiated claims about fairness and sustainability. Their brochure lists six “criteria” of Direct Trade including that the price must be at least 25% above the fair trade price. It’s not clear whether this includes the fair trade premium or just the fair trade floor price and its also not clear whether this includes the additional organic premium required by the fair trade standard for the 80% or so of fair trade coffees that are also organic. When you add those both in and then consider that Intelligentsia’s coffee’s retail on their website for $14 or $15 dollars a pound all the way up to $28 and even $60 per pound, one wonders whether 25% is really very meaningful. Keep in mind also that by skipping certification, this company also gets to avoid paying its own share of the fair trade fees. I asked the rep point blank, without any certification, why should I believe that any of this is true? His response was “come to Nicaragua with me.” Hardly a viable option for 99.9% of this company’s customers. Ironically, one of his first assertions in our conversation was that their model is “totally transparent.” I got this same claim about Direct Trade from folks at Counter Culture in an online discussion we had over at the fantastic Coffee & Conservation blog.

One thing is clear: everyone is making claims about justice and sustainability in the coffee trade but there is little agreement about what that means. Hmm, someone ought to write a book. Oh wait, that’s what we’re doing!

What’s the Greenest Coffee Bag?

December 7, 2007

Posted by Chris O’Brien

Coffee drinkers pay more for packaging, shipping, and advertising than we pay the farmers who grow coffee beans. So how can we pay more to the people and for the product and less for the package? And which kind of package is best for the environment?

Setting aside the issues of shipping and advertising, and ignoring single-serve coffee containers for the moment, the basic retail packaging choice is between a paper bag and a plastic-covered foil bag.

Aargh! The eternal paper versus plastic debate. Hoping to discover once and for all which to choose, I researched this question and reported my findings in Fermenting Revolution. I found that this is a frustrating debate for good reason – there is no clear environmental winner when choosing a paper or plastic bag.

Paper coffee bagPaper
Paper is from a renewable resource – trees. But just because trees are renewable doesn’t mean we’re consuming them sustainably. We axe-down ancient forests and destroy habitat for endangered species, replacing complex ecosystems with tree farms or worse. Today, we have less than half the global forest cover we had at the beginning of settled agriculture ten thousand years ago. In the age of global warming, the role of forests as carbon sequestration sinks has taken on new importance – we need all the trees we can get in order to trap carbon dioxide in hopes of slowing climate change. Unfortunately, we continue on our decline of total forest cover.

Compared to plastic, paper is much heavier. The eco-impacts resulting from this added weight are staggering. According to the EPA, one paper grocery bag requires more than twice as much energy, produces 15 times as much waterborne waste and twice as much atmospheric pollution, as one plastic bag. Though they are theoretically recyclable, Americans chuck four out of five paper bags in the trash. Paper is biodegradable but nearly no-one actually composts them so biodegradability is moot. The vast majority end up locked in landfill where they will stay indefinitely, not biodegrading at all.

Oh, and even if you wanted to compost or recycle your coffee bag, most of them are lined with polypropylene (plastic), so you’re actually getting a paper bag with a plastic bag nested inside it – two for one! Just to keep things complicated, there are exceptions. Some paper coffee bags have no liner, which means they are indeed compostable. Others use a layer of “glassine” which is a dense semi-transparent paper that according to National Envelope is “biodegradable and recyclable.” So if you happen to know that your paper coffee bag is liner-less or uses glassine, and you are willing to compost them – this may be the most environmentally preferable option if you ignore the whole weight issue.

Foil bag

Versus Plastic
Plastic is derived from petroleum and doesn’t even theoretically degrade. At best, plastic bags are recycled, but in reality we only recycle a pathetic one percent of them, tossing out over a hundred billion plastic grocery bags every year. A few manufacturers have started making starch-based plastic bags but they remain prohibitively expensive and account for less than one percent of the market.

But plastic is super cheap, compact and light as air (just think how often you’ve seen them blowing around in it). Its compactness and lightness weigh positively in the shipping formula – light and small means that just one truck can transport as many plastic bags as it takes seven trucks to transport the same number of paper bags.

Drat! Foiled Again
So plastic is drastic and paper is a waster. But hold on, we’re talking about coffee bags not grocery bags. Plastic coffee bags are actually double-bagged just like the paper bags. The inner lining is usually 5 mil polypropylene plastic but the outer layer is aluminum foil. This dual-layer system rules out even the possibility of recycling, plus it adds the complexity of evaluating the environmental footprint of foil. Cripes! This is giving me a headache.

Just to be sure there wasn’t some hidden upside to all this, I called North Atlantic Specialty Bag Co. and a very helpful customer service rep assured me there was no recycled content in the paper, plastic or aluminum of their bags. She also confirmed that the poly-lined paper bags and the poly-lined aluminum bags were not recyclable due to the dual-layer system of each. However, she did say they were soon planning to offer a compostable/recyclable paper option. She didn’t know the construction of these new bags but I suppose they must be the unlined or glassine-lined paper bags I mentioned above.

A Roaster Weighs In
Searching the web for details about bags and looking to see which roasters use what, I found this helpful info from the folks at Cafe Campesino, who give their customers a choice of bags:

Kraft Bags
Our standard packaging for 1-lb. and 2-lb. units of coffee is a biodegradable Kraft paper bag, which can be composted or recycled. Our 5-lb. units of coffee are also packaged in Kraft paper bags, though this size is not biodegradable (it is recyclable), as an internal plastic liner is necessary to support the greater weight during transport. We strongly recommend transferring your coffee into an airtight container upon receiving it.

Foil Bags
To provide for longer shelf life, added hardiness for shipping and for resale venues, we recommend having your coffee packed in our sealed foil bags, each of which (1-lb., 2-lb. and 5-lb.) has a one-way valve to allow the coffee to off-gas without letting air in. Again, we strongly recommend transferring your coffee into an airtight container once the foil bag has been opened.

Presumably, the note about the recyclability versus compostability of the 5 pound plastic-lined paper bag is due to the fact that you can’t simply toss it in the compost bin, but you could remove the plastic liner from the paper bag and recycle each separately.

As far as cost goes, every coffee seller I’ve found who offers both types of bags charges the same price regardless which type you pick. So cost doesn’t appear to be an issue. But there may be a trade off when it comes to quality. Foil bags are better at keeping air away from your beans, which means the coffee stays fresher and retains more of its potential flavor. So if you’re seeking maximum flavor enjoyment, not just a morning jolt, its important to pay attention to exposure to air, though this can be controlled in part by what you do with the coffee once you get it home.

Weight a Minute, the Winner Is . . .
The weight comparison at the beginning was for grocery bags. Since “plastic” coffee bags are actually plastic-lined aluminum foil not just plain old plastic, the preferential lighter weight of plastic disappears. It seems the best option then is an unlined or glassine-lined paper bag.

But wait, there’s one more thing. Paper coffee bags are available in tan or white. The white ones are made of pulp that has extra bleaching (very nasty, toxic processing) and have a coating of clay applied to them.

So, if you buy a pound or two at a time, like most people do, then you should get it fresh from a roaster in a paper bag, transfer it to an airtight container, and compost or recycle the bag. Or if you live near a roaster, ask if you can BYOB – bring your own bag, er, refillable airtight container, and eliminate this damn “econundrum” altogether!