What are the ecological impacts of the coffee industry?

While it may be one of the world’s most beloved drinks, coffee also puts a great strain on the environment. We asked coffee enthusiasts to discuss how traditional coffee-growing and processing methods effect the planet.
What are the ecological impacts of the coffee industry?

Jamie Hickey

Jamie Hickey, an SCA-certified barista and the founder of Coffee Semantics. He manages a team of coffee lovers who perform product reviews, teach brewing techniques, and review coffee gear.

Forests and Waterways at Risk

Destruction of forests
Central American forests have been cleared for sun-grown coffee due to the switch to the crop. A tree [is deforested] when it is permanently removed for some other purpose. The deforestation of forests is grave. In addition to protecting atmospheric dynamics, tropical forests are essential for wildlife conservation.

The tropical forests of Latin America are home to many migratory birds that spend the winter there. Birds have nowhere to go when trees are cut down, which reduces biodiversity. Climate change is caused by a decrease in carbon sequestration. Also, it impacts food security as well as pest control.

Contamination of the water supply
Processed coffee beans also pose a significant threat to waterways. The pollution of rivers is caused largely by discharges from coffee processing plants. By releasing organic pollutants into rivers and waterways, the processing plants have an impact on the environment. This can cause eutrophication and harmful effects on aquatic plants and wildlife.

Dwindling Forests in Favor of Coffee Plantations

One of the major ecological impacts of the coffee industry is deforestation. Unknown to many, millions of acres of forest have been, and continue to be, cleared for coffee growth. This applies to a majority of coffee-growing countries and is a result of growing coffee by the sun, which uses open plantations rather than tree canopies.

Unfortunately, deforestation is devastating to natural gasses in our environment, including oxygen production. This contributes on some level to the climate change issue the planet is facing. There are other factors too, which are not considered here. As a result of deforestation, animal’s homes are being removed and also their food supplies. This can affect migratory animals that return to the same spot and ultimately lead to their decline in numbers.

By removing forestry for coffee plantations, the soil is being damaged in the area and potentially ruining the chance for organic growth of plants and crops. Ultimately, deforestation does not only affect the area of impact, but it also affects the entire planet.

What are the ecological impacts of the coffee industry?

Chad Wyatt

Chad Wyatt is a digital marketing expert, running multiple online businesses. His primary passion is coffee and runs a dedicated blog on coffee-focused content, The Finest Roast.
What are the ecological impacts of the coffee industry?

Christopher Anson

Christopher Anson is a veteran of the food service and coffee service industry. He is the founder of RedCup Beverage Service.

Steps to Minimize Negative Impacts

The processes of growing coffee, roasting coffee, transporting it, brewing coffee, and disposing of the coffee products (and containers) can have some big impacts on the environment. We should note, though, that not all of the impacts are negative!

As you may know, coffee is typically cultivated and grown in the tropical and subtropical areas of our planet. These regions need to be at a high elevation and, in traditional growing methods like “shade-grown” cultivation, the coffee will be grown in areas with high biodiversity. The growing techniques can actually contribute to increasing that biodiversity as the coffee can be grown underneath the shade of tree canopies. This provides a great habitat for indigenous creatures and can help prevent topsoil erosion over time. This biodiversity ultimately removes the need for chemical fertilizers too, so the farmers can actually help provide a positive impact on the local environment.

However, as the coffee industry has expanded significantly over the years and global demand has skyrocketed, these traditional coffee growing techniques are not as widely used anymore. Instead, many coffee farms will rely on a “sun-grown” cultivation method which is exactly what it sounds like: coffee that is produced on plantations where the individual’s plants get direct sunlight.

While this cultivation method offers the highest yield for the crop, it negatively impacts the environment. To create these plantations, forested areas need to be cut down, which results in a lower diversity of plants. This, in turn, leads to a lower diversity of insects and animals in the area. To counteract that impact, growers will use chemical fertilizers on their crops to encourage the growth of their plants. However, the area can suffer from topsoil erosion at the same time, which can lead to long-term negative impacts on the environment.

We also must mention the impacts of deforestation. By removing those trees from the tropical and subtropical regions of the planet, the coffee industry can be negatively impacting the entire world. Those forests are needed for protecting wildlife species, entire ecosystems, and atmospheric dynamics. When trees are cleared away, wildlife species can decline dramatically, and less carbon dioxide will be sucked out of the air to be turned into oxygen.

As coffee is grown and then harvested, it will then need to be processed to turn the beans into the products we love. However, those processes can pose some ecological hazards to local waterways and rivers. The discharges of coffee processing may find their way to rivers or waterways where they may harm the local ecosystems. The discharges can trigger the eutrophication of water systems, which essentially rob aquatic plants and wildlife of essential oxygen.

And there’s also the waste that comes from manufacturing coffee. The beans of coffee are grown in little cherries that adorn the branches of coffee plants. To harvest these beans, the cherries must be picked, de-pulped, and fermented. This entire process can generate a ton of waste. In fact, one study found that over a 6-month period of processing 547,000 tons of coffee in Central America, it’s estimated that as much as 1.1 million tons of pulp was generated each day and it also estimated that 110,000 cubic meters of water were polluted each day too. That’s a startling amount of waste!

Fortunately, at least some of the waste of coffee production can be re-utilized for better purposes. Some farms may compost the coffee husks with their animal manure to use as organic fertilizer in the next farming season.

But we also need to consider the human waste of coffee. Many coffee cups are recyclable or even compostable, but many are simply thrown away each day without a second use or a second thought. Experts estimate that billions of coffee cups are thrown away each year, and those coffee cups can pollute our landfills and contribute to the global plastic pollution problem too.

And of course, there’s the transportation side of things too. Your coffee doesn’t just magically transport itself from the farms to your local coffee shop. Coffee needs to be packed and shipped internationally on planes, trains, ships, and trucks. Those vehicles will produce carbon emissions and contribute to the negative impacts of climate change. It’s a vicious cycle that can be tough to find a way out of.

So, what can you do as a consumer to minimize the ecological impacts of your coffee?
A few things:

Opt for shade-grown coffee whenever possible.
This growing method is best for supporting biological diversity and is the best cultivation solution for a sustainable future. Check the packaging of your coffee products to learn about their growing methods or do your research beforehand to find those providers. It also doesn’t hurt to check for seals on the coffee bags too, like “Fair Trade Certified” and “Rain Forest Alliance Certified.”

Make your coffee at home.
This will help minimize your waste, as you won’t need to use a new plastic coffee cup each day. Plus, you can use those left-over coffee grounds in many ways within your own home.

Encourage policies to change harmful business practices in the coffee industry.
Call your representatives, other elected officials, and social activist groups to ask that they advocate for changes to the trade policies that surround coffee. The U.S. trade policies could be better structured to require a reduction in pesticide use and deforestation in coffee production.

Pollution and Contamination Issues

Coffee processing facilities frequently dump waste into the river, causing pollution and contamination issues that can lead to acidification of water systems and the extinction of aquatic flora and animals. As the coffee market expands, so does the number of new suppliers. China and Nepal, for example, are increasing their coffee exports.

Increased global demand and huge merchants such as Starbucks have resulted in convoluted production and supply networks with limited transparency. It can be super challenging to assess the impact on employees and the environment.

Moreover, using traditional coffee is an alternative because it requires far fewer chemical inputs than industrial plantations, which reduces the negative ecological impact by a lot. On the other hand, Sun-grown coffee is frequently sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, posing significant health and environmental risks.

What are the ecological impacts of the coffee industry?

Grace Woinicz

Grace Woinicz, CEO at The Brilliant Kitchen.

This is a crowdsourced article. Contributors are not necessarily affiliated with this website and their statements do not necessarily reflect the opinion of this website, other people, businesses, or other contributors.