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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Drinking responsibly
March 22, 2011 - 5:15pm

I was shopping in a big box retailer recently. (I almost said "one of our local big box retailers", but of course there's no such thing.) What caught my eye was a box of coffee, prominently labeled "Fair Trade". The next thing I noticed, though, was that the box didn't contain what I think of as coffee at all. No beans. Not even ground up beans. Simply liquid in little plastic cups.

To my mind, little plastic cups of concentrated coffee essence are the worst thing that's ever happened to the jet fuel of western society. Worse than decaf. Even worse than flavored coffee (and I HATE flavored coffee!).

Now let's get it right out in the open that coffee, in general, is not the most sustainable of beverages. It takes intensive cultivation (so I'm told -- I've never done it). As a colonial imposition and a cash crop it tends to drive out subsistence agriculture (creating both increased "prosperity" and increased malnutrition). Its production is often characterized by a plantation system not too terribly far from slavery. (That's where the Fair Trade thing comes in.)

But given that there needs to be coffee in the world (at least, in my world), it should happen with as little ecological impact as possible. And that doesn't involve little plastic cups.

Think about it. If you buy coffee beans (ground or whole), what happens is that the beans get picked and shipped to a roaster who packages them and wholesales them. Water never enters the process until the beans get to your kitchen. (Decaf is an exception to that last statement, but not a significant one.) Beans and water are joined by means of a process created by the gods, and a marvelous brew is created (and immediately consumed).

For the coffee to be sold in little plastic cups, however, the process takes on additional steps. And additional weight.

The beans get shipped to a roaster who sells them to a consumer food products company which brews big batches of liquid coffee in the factory. The liquid coffee then gets partially dehydrated and the resulting concentrate is put in those cups. When you get the little cups to your kitchen, you do what you normally would -- add hot water. So what goes on in your kitchen is largely unaffected (the time dimension aside). And what goes on at the coffee grower is largely unaffected. What's different is that now the coffee gets brewed (effectively) twice, and the product that gets shipped to the retailer is bulkier and heavier (per cup of final coffee created) so it takes more energy to transport, and we've created a whole lot of otherwise needless packaging.

All other things being equal, drinks that you purchase in relatively natural form (coffee beans, tea leaves, etc.) represent far less embodied energy than do drinks which are pre-brewed, pre-steeped, or concentrated. And drinks that come in individual packages represent even more embodied energy than do similar drinks in large jugs.

And a "Fair Trade" label, while it represents a degree of commitment to social sustainability, doesn't address any of these logistical issues.


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