Many coffee drinkers go out of their way to get "fair trade" and "eco-friendly" coffee, but is that pricey jolt of joe really any better for the environment than the 75-cent paper cup of gut-rot from the corner deli?
After oil, coffee is the most traded commodity in the world. It's produced commercially on 25 million acres in 82 countries, and the United States consumes 8.7 million pounds of it annually, according to the Department of Agriculture.
But not all coffee should be treated equally.
In some parts of the world, forests — our first line of defense against global warming — are being cleared to increase the yield of the coffee crop.
"About 20 percent of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere each year come from the destruction of forests — more than from all the planes, trains and automobiles in the entire world," says Dave Mehlman, director of the Migratory Bird Program for the Arlington, Va.-based Nature Conservancy (http://www.nature.org/).
Some types of coffee are produced under strict environmental or labor standards, but caffeine addicts have to pay more for them. The most common kinds are "Fair Trade," organic and "shade-grown" coffees.
Coffee grown with a Fair Trade certification helps ensure that farmers in developing countries are paid fairly for their toil and hopefully won't have to resort to unscrupulous growing practices detrimental to the environment.
Organic coffee is grown without the use of harmful pesticides or fertilizers, a green way to go for any crop.
Then there is shade-grown coffee. Otherwise known as "bird friendly" since it's helpful to migratory fowl, it's grown under canopy trees where the natural shade shelters the coffee plants during the growing season. This could be a win-win situation for growers and the environment.
"In Colombia, fruit trees are used to shade the coffee," says Mehlman. "This produces double yield for the same acreage, fruit and coffee."
Unfortunately, shade-grown coffee yields are lower than open-field sun cultivation, so the price is often higher. The increased demand for cheap coffee has resulted in the clearing of rainforests and an increase in the usage of chemicals and pesticides.
"Because it's such a staple in our lives, it's important to make smart choices to have a smart impact," says Carmen K. Iezzi, executive director of the Fair Trade Federation, the trade association that strengthens and promotes North American organizations that are fully committed to fair trade. "It's a holistic process; our members want to produce sustainably without compromising future generations' ability to grow."
Even if you decide to pay the extra for the java grown fairly and organically, there's another side to your morning coffee that keeps it from being green.
"We as a country use 23 billion paper coffee cups a year," explains Nicko Fusso of Sustainability Is Sexy, a Seattle-based non-profit organization devoted to getting as many coffee drinkers as possible to tote their own reusable cups.
"To make that many cups, we'll consume 9.4 million trees and 363 million gallons of water," adds Nicko. "That's enough energy to power 77,000 homes for a year."
With 150 million people drinking 3.1 cups per day, and many of those cups grabbed on-the-go, the number of single-use coffee cups going in the trash is staggering.
And paper coffee cups aren't about to go away.
"It's not the cup that's the problem, it's the habit," says Bob Lilienfeld, editor of The Use Less Stuff Report [http://use-less-stuff.com], a Rochester, Mich.-based online newsletter. "In one word, it's about convenience. We tend to move toward anything that makes it easier for us to save time and effort. But there is a cost."
At least one coffee-cup giant agrees.
"Every choice has a trade-off," explains Angie Gorman, director of communications for the Solo Cup Company, based in Highland Park, Ill. "You have an impact on the front end when manufacturing the cup, or at the end of that cup's useful life. Reducing waste is important, but a better way to reduce waste is to expand the country's composting and recycling infrastructure."
Still, Gorman insists there's a need for disposable coffee cups.
"Single-use cups offer a convenient and sanitary way to serve beverages to the public," she points out.
Lilienfeld doesn't dispute that.
"There are times when you have no other option, like at the theater or a ball game," he says. "You can't bring your own cup into these venues."
Cup manufacturers like Solo are working aggressively to find more sustainable solutions, such as increasing the use of post-consumer fiber when making the cups.
Most cups are lined with polyethylene, preventing them from being recycled, but new cups are being made of plant-based materials so they can be composted. The bad news is they'll only do so properly in a commercial composting facility.
Between the millions of acres being abused to grow our beans and the paper cups we carry around like trophies, how do can keep our morning coffee green?
Well, it begins with the coffee drinker.
"Consumers who enjoy convenience but want to make a difference can take two key actions," says Gorman. "First, they can understand the options in single-use food-service products, such as compostable, and their inherent trade-offs so informed choices can be made.
"Second, they can request that local restaurants collect recyclable and compostable materials and contact their community and state leaders to ask for their support of the expansion of recycling and commercial composting facilities."
To find a recycler in your area, check out www.earth911.com; for a commercial compost facility, try www.findacomposter.com. To see how many pounds of garbage you produce with your caffeine fix, go to www.dzignism.com/projects/coffee.waste.
One thing's for sure — we're not giving up drinking coffee. Paper cups aren't going away, and it may be a while before commercial composting is available everywhere.
The greenest way to get your kick is to pay extra for fair-trade, organic or shade-grown coffee — and, when you can, carry your own mug.