At last! Fill up your gas tank with spent Coffee Grounds

May 16, 2008
Now this is what we’ve all been waiting for. Our love of great coffee may someday fuel our addiction to cars!
Cafe Racer Touted as a “carbon negative” vehicle, the 1975 GMC pick-up known as the Cafe Racer is fueled by spent coffee grounds (or most trash) through a process known as gasification.

‘What is gasification? Gasification is the general term used for processes where heat is used to transform solid biomass into a “natural gas like” flammable fuel. Through gasification, we can take nearly any solid biomass waste and convert it into a clean burning, carbon neutral, gaseous fuel. Whether starting with wood scraps or coffee grounds, municipal trash or junk tires, the end product is a flexible gaseous fuel you can burn in your gasoline engine, cooking stove, heating furnace and/or flamethrower.’ (click here for more info on the Cafe Racer)


Carbon Neutral Coffee

May 13, 2008

I recently attended the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s annual shindig. This whopper of an event gathers thousands of attendees and hundreds of companies for five days worth of conferencing and tradeshowing.

I attended one session that featured stories from coffee companies who have partnered with a non-profit called Trees for the Future in order to offset their greenhouse gas emissions through tree planting initiatives in the places where coffee is grown.

Trees for the Future (TftF) is first and foremost a development oriented enterprise dedicated to tree planting projects that aid impoverished people. Lately, the NGO has been linking with businesses interested in supporting the efforts financially by claiming some of the carbon benefits from the plantings. Founder and director Dave Deppner explained during an SCAA presentation that coffee businesses need to improve their energy efficiency but they need to simultaneously be scrubbing as much carbon out of the atmosphere as possible so as to slow global warming. That’s where the tree planting projects come in handy.

Coffee companies partnering with TftF include: Alakef Coffee, Cafe Imports, Mojo Coffee, Signature Coffee, and Thanksgiving Coffee. TftF conducts an energy audit of each partner and plants trees in tropical and subtropical regions to absorb the volume of gases equivalent to those generated by the business partner. The process, TftF admits, is inexact but Deppner claims that they intentionally overcompensate by building a conservative fudge-factor into their calculations in order to ensure that enough trees are planted to make up for any margin of error.

In person, Deppner comes across with an attitude of “let’s just do it and not get bogged down in details that might slow down our urgent work.” It’s an understandable approach but not one that is likely to last long in the emerging age of carbon trading, in which guaranteed, measurable carbon benefits will be mandatory for any claims about emissions offsetting. Never-the-less, TftF’s efforts are laudable and Deppner’s personal charm exudes an infectious good-heartedness that builds immediate trust – despite the lack of independently verified carbon benefits.

Here’s an eight minute video about TftF’s programs and approach that provides a sense of their motivations.

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee Emissions

December 30, 2007

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

The Indigenous Arhuaco of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

December 30, 2007

Posted by Chris O’Brien

In two weeks, I’ll join my fellow blogger-soon-to-be-authors Chris and Jody Treter for a visit to two coffee producing communities in Colombia. The first is the indigenous Arhuaco of the coastal Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in northern Colombia. The Arhuaco are one of four indigenous groups believed to be descendants of the ancient Tayrona civilization which thrived around 900 CE and may go as far back as the beginning of the first millennium. We’ll be meeting Arhuaco representatives from the Tayrona Indigenous Federation.

In preparation for the trip I’ve been learning what I can about these people and their environs. I started by reading a chapter about them in Dean Cycon’s book Javatrekker and a few dribs and drabs floating around on the web.

Some themes emerge in what I read. First, as with many indigenous people around the world, coffee was used against them as a colonial weapon of oppression. But today they are tentatively embracing it as a potential tool of economic empowerment by seeking relationships with fair trade coffee partners.

Second, by all accounts they are distrustful of and unwelcoming to outsiders. I suppose they have their reasons.

And finally, they have a deeply held religious belief that their mountains are the heart (or, depending on what you read, the navel) of the world. As such, they feel that the health of the Sierra Nevada range is critical to the survival of the world. Apparently, for decades now they have been diagnosing local ecosystem changes as symptomatic of global warming.

According to our trip host, Cooperative Coffees, the Tayrona Federation have the following eight objectives in commercializing their coffee. Here they are as quoted verbatim from the Coop Coffees website.

  1. Give to the Confederación Indígena Tayrona, as legitimate representative of the insterests of the Arhuaco people, the economic capacity to commercialize their own coffee.
  2. To strengthen indigenous institutionality of the Arhuaco natives, represented by the Confederación Indígena Tayrona.
  3. To strengthen economic self/sustainability in the Arhuaco community as a strategy to prevent deplacement of the indigenous population of the zone.
  4. To control the entering to the zone of external agents to the community that produce internal disarticulation.
  5. To assure that the coffee producing Arhuaco community members receive the benefits to which an organic producer has right.
  6. To refrain from cultural dissolution or crackeling of the community.
  7. To create the mechanisms that permit the Arhuaco community to have better sales processes in their agricultural products.
  8. To acquire knowledge based on experience of commercialization of agricultural products.

I’m very eager to learn whether selling coffee through fair trade relationships is helping them realize these goals. The beer activist in me is also very keen to see if there are some unusual versions of chicha being brewed up in them there mountains.

Climate Change Score Card for Coffee Companies

November 3, 2007

My colleagues at Climate Counts have rated the big food products companies and food service providers, including many companies providing coffee, on how well they are addressing their impact on global warming.

The scorecard covers four areas: 1) whether the company has conducted a review of their own contributions to warming; 2) what they’ve done to reduce their impact; 3) whether they have a helpful policy stance on climate change; and 4) whether they report to the public on their impact and initiatives.

food scorecard
Scorecard for food service

Sometime, we’ll do a blog post that shows the company-brand ownership structure of the major coffee companies so you can tell which big name corporation (like some of the above) goes with which coffee brand.