Grinding the truth: Is coffee an environmental disaster or a force for good?

OXYGEN FILES: Would corporate Australia continue to function if climate change compromised coffee harvests to the point it became scarce and therefore unaffordable for most of us? It’s worth thinking about because all the evidence shows that coffee is the fuel driving the business world.

One of the biggest pieces of evidence is the ever-growing waste issue, both from takeaway coffee cups and from the little pods used in many popular coffee machines.

The waste is also becoming more obvious, partly because there is less paper going into office bins as more companies go digital and virtual with paperwork.

Lead waste auditor for Ausnviro Stacey Ward told The Fifth Estate that while less paper is ending up in general waste streams, the firm is seeing a huge increase in paper towels, soft plastics and coffee cups.

A typical office will have a “ridiculous amount” of coffee cups ending up in the bins, she says. They are also regularly appearing as contaminants in recycling.

Coffee pods are also coming up more often as a problematic waste item. One large office tenancy, for example, was producing 2.5 kilograms of used pods a day.

“It’s a big issue for us,” Ward says. “People think they are a better option [in terms of waste] than a take away coffee from the shop, but they are creeping into the waste more and more.”

UNSW says that nation-wide we are now collectively spending more than $215 million on coffee pods every year, which results in billions of the capsules ending up in landfill.

There are some recycling options available. TerraCycle has a service, as does Nespresso. 

In terms of battling the bins, NABERS’ new Waste Platform is an option for companies to measure and manage the levels of waste being produced. 

There are currently nine published base building ratings for NABERS Waste. They are for buildings owned by GPT, Stockland, Frasers, CBUS and the Rialto property trust. There is one published tenancy rating, held by EPA Victoria’s office.

Ward says that the new platform, launched this year, has made the toolkit more accessible to different types of buildings – so watch this space to see the number of ratings grow.

However, she says what the consultants are finding is that because NABERS Waste is not mandatory – unlike energy – there is no strong driver for uptake.

There is a real push in the industry for the government to step in and put some rules in place that will make people care about waste.

Ward says that addressing waste delivers an eco benefit, a cost benefit and also an efficiency benefit from the cleaning service point of view.

Another more subtle way of shifting the waste discussion revolves around naming the beast.

Ward says the consultancy used to title the non-recyclable waste stream as “general waste” during audits. Now they are calling it “landfill”, because that helps to “get the connection in people’s heads” about where that waste is going.

“‘Landfill’ is very clear – ‘general’ is kind of floaty.”

This kind of clear labelling cuts through people’s tendency to “not think about where it goes” when they toss a coffee cup in the bin.

Targets and tactics

City of Sydney has indeed set targets for waste – especially around landfill reduction. 

By June 2021 it aims to divert 70 per cent of residential waste from landfill, 70 per cent of commercial waste and 80 per cent of construction and demolition waste.

Council also has a strategy, Leave Nothing to Waste, that encourages both residents and businesses to break the throw-away habit.

Zoe Baker CitySwitch program manager says the program added many single use / plastic avoidance materials to the choose.reuse. toolkit this year.

The idea is to provide signatories with collateral including artwork that will equip them to run an engagement and behaviour change campaign.

She says she also hearing more and more about creative initiatives offices are implementing such as staff keep cups, borrow cups, mug walls and Tupperware libraries.

One company, for example, had a stand with keep cups and Tupperware containers next to the lifts on every level so that staff could grab them on the way out.

Others might have made a cup borrowing arrangement with a nearby café, or be near a café that has initiated its own cup-lending arrangement.

“Everyone seems to have quietly gotten on with this.”

Using a grant from City of Sydney, the Responsible Cafes initiative has produced a useful toolkit which includes information on how to choose a re-useable cup.

It’s important background information for a change-maker within an organisation, Baker says, as people will ask questions like “how long does the lid last?” and “how long do I need to use it for before it has made a difference?”

The Responsible Cafes website also maps the cafes around Australia that have signed up to wage quiet war on takeaway coffee waste through incentives such as discounts for keep cups and cup libraries.

When it comes to the pesky coffee pods, Baker says it is “more of a slow shift”.

Some companies are simply banning all single-use items from their kitchens – including coffee pods. Internationally the City of Hamburg has gone even further and banned coffee pods from government-run buildings.

The entire EU has now put in place a ban on one-use plastics including coffee cups that will kick in by 2021.

How The Office Space keeps people and the planet happy

At Surry Hills co-working spaces, The Office Space, the provision of ceramic mugs and cups for in-office coffee and the provision of keep-cups for take away coffee means only two or three disposable takeaway cups are landing in the bin each week, according to Ally Leach, The Office Space office coordinator speaking to The Fifth Estate.

Instant coffee is provided, and for the few Nespresso machines in use throughout the offices, recycle bags for the pods are located on each floor.

She says at both the Paramount and Reservoir locations, cups are washed by reception staff.

The response from occupants has been positive, she says. They value the environmental sustainability aspect, and they value the service.

At Paramount, a partnership with the downstairs café also means the co-working tenants get 50 cents off each take away coffee when a keep cup is used.

Leach says the company’s management have made a conscious shift to focus more on sustainability over the past year. This focus has included holding events such as recent public talk on “climate changemakers”.

“People get really involved,” she says. 

“They tend to gravitate more towards sustainability.”

Could coffee become good news for the climate?

Here’s a fun fact about coffee – the coffee tree is an understorey plant that grows the most delicious beans when it is shaded by other trees. While some producers choose monoculture for convenience, those in the know say it results in a more bitter bean.

The nature of the plant means there is increasing interest in coffee as a crop that can help combat climate change as the tree itself sequesters carbon, and grown in a mixed forest setting there’s a whole suite of companions also sequestering carbon.

Coffee can also support small-scale, sustainable agricultural practices. Currently, the vast majority of the coffee consumed world-wide is grown by family farmers in developing nations. 

The catch is some of these farmers are being impacted by climate change in a way that is reducing yields, and many are being paid substantially less for their hard work than they should be by unscrupulous traders.

Coffee has also been identified as one of the high-risk commodities in terms of modern slavery risks including indentured labour, child labour and bonded labour.

A growing number of organisations are stepping in to address the various issues, including the Coffee and Climate initiative, which is working with smallholders to improve the resilience of their operations.

The initiative also aims to ensure workers are paid fairly for their efforts.

The Sustainable Coffee Challenge is another new initiative. A partnership between governments, corporates, NGOs and coffee producers, it aims to address the full suite of sustainability imperatives including ecological, financial, social and climate change resilience.

Is that a cup of blood, sweat and tears?

With the Australian government’s Modern Slavery Act still expected to be passed by Parliament this year, we asked chief executive of the Supply Chain Sustainability School Robin Mellon if companies should be thinking about the coffee in the corporate kitchenette when undertaking slavery risk reporting.  

Mellon points out that supply chains are often complex things – and the more extended or indirect it is, the harder it can be to really “see” the people involved. 

“Coffee supply chains are a useful example that people can get their heads around.

“After all, most people drink coffee and a supply chain from the 25 million coffee-growing smallholders around the global ‘coffee belt’ to their co-ops, to the transporters, to the importers, to the roasters, to your barista is one that’s relatively easy to understand.” 

In terms of the risk factor, he says that if coffee purchases are a “relatively tiny percentage of your procurement spend” and the risks involved through that supply chain are similarly tiny, for example, because you’re already buying Fairtrade coffee for your team of 50 people, it is probably not worth focusing your initial modern slavery reporting efforts on. 

Where the coffee purchases make up a larger percentage of total spend, and the risks might be larger because, for example, you’ve never known where the coffee came from and your supplier couldn’t tell you either, then it may need to be more of a priority.

While there’s no immediate right answer to the need to report on slavery risks around your company coffee supply immediately, Mellon does have a heads-up to offer.

“Just know that, over time, the intention is to have more and more transparent supply chains – and so the more questions that you start asking, about everything you procure, the more answers you’ll get to know. 

“And the better the chances to improve your supply chains and manage your risks.”