Sustainable coffee is produced on a farm with high biological diversity and low chemical inputs. It conserves resources, protects the environment, produces efficiently, competes commercially, and enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
                                                      -- Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, First Sustainable Coffee Congress.

Keurig Green Mountain (KGM) has released its 2014 sustainability report. As far as their progress on reducing waste from K-Cups, the story is much the same as last year…and many previous years.

  • K-Cups are still not recyclable*.
  • The goal is still to make all K-Cups recyclable by the year 2020.
  • The report notes that K-Cups were first introduced in 1998. Thus (if successful), it will have taken KGM 22 years to achieve their goal.

THIS IS CRAZY. First and most obvious, how many K-Cups will have been produced by KGM and sent to a landfill by that point? In  2013 alone, it was estimated at 8.3 billion. What about third-party manufactured packs that are produced now that the original K-Cups are off-patent?   How many of these are and will be produced? Are or will any of them be recyclable?

Second, will there even be any of the brewers around still using the original K-Cups by 2020? It sort of seems as if this exercise will be a moot point by then: the product will have run its course, with billions still sitting in landfills.

Meanwhile, KGMs newer Keurig 2.0 brewer compatible portion packs — the Vue Pack, K-Carafe, and Bolt Pack — are recyclable, sort of. They are made of #5 plastic (polypropylene) and can be recycled, according to KGM, in 60% of U.S. communities — although often not curbside. To their credit, KGM provides a tool on their website where you can locate who accepts #5 plastic. Note that consumers still have to separate the foil lid from the filter, and extra effort tends to reduce the number of units actually recycled, especially among uber-convenience oriented Keurig users. The overall recycling rate in the U.S. is only 34%, a low rate of compliance which reduces the significance of single-serve coffee portion packs being made of recyclable material.

Isn’t it so much better for the environment to create a cup of coffee that only produces compostable organic coffee grounds? This can be achieved, for less money and with superior results, with any number of methods, such as a Hario pour over cone  or Chemex and a reusable filter, or a French Press.

And, by the way, the Keurig brewers are manufactured in China and Malaysia.

You can read more about the high cost of K-Cups and other single-serve capsule coffees here, and a summary of reusable alternatives to K-Cups for Keurig brewers here.

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*I’m still surprised at how many people say they recycle K-Cups. As I — and KGM — have explained many times they are made out of a plastic that cannot be recycled. It doesn’t matter if you peel off the lids, remove the filter, grounds and all the adhesive, and carry them to your recycling center delivered on a velvet pillow.  The facility will sort them out and send them to the landfill or incinerator. If they don’t and they get mixed in with other plastic, they can potentially contaminate a whole batch as surely as a turd in a punchbowl.

P.S. After I completed this post but prior to publishing it, The Atlantic came out with a great article on the wastefulness of K-Cups. Take a look.

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Site updates

by on February 28, 2015

In addition to making minor changes and updates on many individual posts, I have recently updated and overhauled several important pages here at Coffee & Conservation.

Quick Guide to Coffee Certifications — I’ve updated the information, and added graphs that illustrate the number of environmental criteria/requirements and number of biodiversity criteria/requirements for many of the certifications.

Eco-friendly coffee: How much is there? — How much of the world’s coffee is grown and sold under the standards of the major eco-certification programs? Data from multiple sources covers ~2006 to 2013.

Corporate coffee: How much is certified? — how much eco-certified coffee is purchased and sold by the biggest corporate coffee buyers? Data from multiple sources covers ~2007 to 2013.

Coffee bibliography — This is my curated list of peer-reviewed literature on sustainable coffee production and certifications. There are nearly 400 papers in the list.

 

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UTZ-new-logo

(Original post about this certification can be found here.)

I don’t consider UTZ Certified an “eco-certification.” The emphasis is on traceability and transparency in the supply chain, offering substantial support to farmers of several agricultural products on improving their production and business practices. The environmental criteria in their Code of Conduct are fairly generic and lack much in the way of meaningful, quantifiable ecological goals. Being the first step up the certification ladder (from the ground floor of 4C compliance), it is popular with large commodity coffee companies. To their credit, UTZ has made several revisions to their standards over the past decade, the last being in 2014.

The new revision did not strengthen their environmental criteria, and in fact did away with one that marginally dealt with shade coffee. Thus, UTZ will still not be included among the certifications I include as eco-certifications. But let’s take a look at what changed in the environmental criteria of the last revision.

Brief overview: How it works

UTZ has a general Code of Conduct (one for groups, one for individual producers) made up of criteria that they refer to as “Control Points” (CPs). Most are mandatory within a set time period of one to four years. Some (which ones are up to the producer) are “additional” or optional. By the end of the fourth year, certificate holders have to be in compliance with a certain number of mandatory and additional points.

General changes in the 2014 revision

The CPs were grouped in similar categories. They have now been reformulated into four “blocks” representing the four pillars of sustainable agriculture: Management (35 CPS, 0 additional allowed by year 4), Farming Practices (42 CPs, 3 are additional), Working Conditions (30 CPs, 1 is additional), and Environment (13 CPs, of which 3 are additional).

The environmental criteria, then, are still the least emphasized, with the fewest number of mandatory CPs, around 9% of the total number. With the revision, there are now also several crop-specific additional sets of CPs, including one for coffee. The Coffee Module has four CPs in the Environment block, but none have to do with habitat; they deal with water consumption, treatment, recycling, and monitoring.

Many of the CPs seem to have been simplified and consolidated, or moved from one category to another. This kind of streamlining has been going on with other certification standards and is okay so long as it doesn’t water down the criteria. However, when standards undergo a substantial overhaul it can be hard to make direct comparisons between versions.

Environmental criteria 2010 versus 2014

In the 2010 Code, under the Natural Resources and Biodiversity category, there were 19 CPs, of which 15 were mandatory by the fourth year, and 4 were additional.

In the 2014 Code, under the Environment block there are 13 CPs, of which 10 are mandatory by the fourth year, and 3 are additional.

So a reduction in the number of criteria for the environment, although again, some due to reshuffling. The CPs having to do with buffer zones along water bodies, protection of endangered species, and deforestation appear to be stronger or more specific to me, which is positive. There is now a CP dealing with climate change, and the Coffee Module contains a mandatory CP prohibiting any coffee produced by animals in captivity — e.g., kopi luwak — welcome additions.

Less encouragement for shade

The biggest disappointment was the elimination of the one CP that mentioned use of shade trees in coffee production. In previous versions, there was a mandatory CP that read: The producer uses shade trees whenever this is compatible with the local coffee production practices and takes into consideration the productivity.

That CP is now gone. Instead, “shaded agroforestry systems” are among several options that can fulfill an additional (and thus optional) CP on protecting ecological biodiversity by “enhancing habitats and ecosystems”. Other options that can also be used to fulfill this CP (arguably easier and cheaper than planting shade trees) include planting flowers and preserving hedges.

Since by the end of year four certificate holders only need to have one additional point out of seven or so available, chances are that “shade coffee” is part of a producer’s UTZ certification are slim indeed.

The new Code of Conduct, Coffee Module, and other documents can be downloaded here. I think you’ll agree that it doesn’t quality as an eco-certification. UTZ recognizes that there are pros and cons of the existence of multiple sustainability initiatives, and that each has its strengths and weaknesses. While I can’t endorse it as a label to look for if ecological issues are important to you, I do believe UTZ encourage farmers to move towards more sustainable farming practices, and is especially worthwhile if producers use it as a stepping stone to more robust programs that really promote ecological sustainability.

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Two of the giants in the corporate coffee world want to merge in an attempt to rival the world’s current biggest coffee buyer, Nestlé. I’ve been waiting for the merger to go through to write about this deal, but it is being investigated by European anti-trust regulators, so I’ll go ahead and provide some background now.

The proposed merger is between the #2 and #3 coffee companies in the world: Mondelēz International and D.E. Master Blenders 1753.

mondelez-logoMondelēz International was the name given to the Kraft Foods division that spun off from the company’s grocery segment in 2012. Coffee brands include Gevalia, Tassimo, and Kenco. (Kraft Food Group and Kraft Foodservice control Maxwell House, Yuban, General Foods International and the Gevalia and Tassimo brands in North America. Although I’ve not read that Kraft brands are part of this deal, Maxwell House is shown as an included coffee brand in this fact sheet put out by Mondelēz.)

master-blenders-logoD.E. Master Blenders 1753 is owned by JAB Holding Company (Joh. A. Benckiser) — the private firm that recently purchased Caribou Coffee and Peet’s Coffee.  Their main coffee brand, though, is Douwe Egberts (once owned by Sara Lee Corporation). There are other coffee brands owned by D.E. Master Blenders, mainly European; the most familiar to Americans is probably Senseo.

A merger between these two companies was agreed upon in mid-2014. If approved, the new company will be called Jacobs Douwe Egberts. Mondelēz will own 49% of the new company, and JAB will have controlling interest at 51%.

Mondelēz International purchases about 500,000 tons of coffee annually. D.E. Master Blenders purchases 300,000 tons, according to Coffee Barometer 2014 (PDF). Combined, their purchases equal Nestlé’s 860,000 tons. Thus, if the merger proceeds, Nestlé and the new Jacobs Douwe Egberts will be purchasing around 20% of the entire world production of coffee.

In my table describing Corporate Coffee: How much is eco-certified, you can see how little of this coffee is falls under any of the meaningful eco-certifications (Smithsonian Bird-Friendly, Rainforest Alliance, or organic). A mere 57,000 tons — 3.3% — of the coffee purchased by Nestlé, Mondelēz International, and D.E. Master Blenders* falls under these three certifications! Tweet

I can fall back on my usual advice: avoid inexpensive, mass-produced, commodity traded, grocery store coffee. The largest coffee companies in the world control this category, and do little, if anything, to make sure the coffee they buy is produced under conditions that protect farmland, natural habitat, biodiversity, or the farmers that grow it.


*I’ve not historically included D.E. Master Blenders in my table as I have concentrated on North American brands, but I will do so if the merger goes through. D.E. Master Blenders mainly purchases UTZ Certified coffee, which does not have strong, specific, or meaningful ecological criteria; Coffee Barometer 2014 indicates the company has plans to procure more organic and Rainforest Alliance certified coffee in the future. Even adding in UTZ and Nestlé’s own self-certified, mystery Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality program purchases, the total only amounts to 202,000 tons, or 12% of what these three companies buy each year.

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Revised on March 1, 2015

Posted in Corporate coffee,Kraft/Mondelēz International

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