Coffee: my environmental dilemma

February 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

I was always more of a tea drinker than coffee drinker; that was until I moved to Paris for work. In order to kick-start the day I still need two sizeable mugs of builder’s tea but once I settle into the office, a gear switches in my head and taste buds and I become a consumer of coffee, or rather of espresso. I am sure that doctors would shake their heads at my 3-4 espresso per day habit but I have a penchant for the thick bitter shot during daylight hours.

The coffee machine in the office serves pale black luke warm liquid which is as far removed from coffee as soya milk is from full-fat unpasteurised milk straight from the dairy. Instead I have to look further to satisfy my coffee habit. In London I would step out to one of the establishments that did a passable espresso to go, or if in Spitalsfields, would queue up at the little ape van for a thimble of bitter Neapolitan espresso. France, however, does not do coffee to go.

The general absence of fast food coffee shops makes perfect sense in a society with a 35-hour working week where people take their time to have a leisurely lunch finished off by a café. My job has unfortunately been pretty much a straight transplant from the City of London to the Madeleine, with little acknowledgement of the differences in culture or working traditions. As a consequence, I have had to rely on the most un-French of establishments: Starbucks.

Every morning I would pop into the local branch for my first shot of the day. After lunch I would pick up a second one – or possibly have one sur place to avoid the wasted paper cup and plastic lid. By mid afternoon I would be itching to stretch my legs and for the next shot. And if I knew it was going to be a late night I would pick up a final one just before closing time at 7pm. The daily balance: €7-9 and three to four wasted paper cups and lids. To curb the waste of resources, if not money, I bought myself a small espresso cup – sold by Starbucks – in the hope that they would fill it as my espresso to go. However, as a matter of policy the baristas refused as they are only allowed to fill cups with lids…

The waste had been preying on my mind for some time when the arrival of a new colleague in my office triggered a solution but with it an environmental dilemma. With her usual joie de vivre M suggested we acquire a Nespresso machine for our office, pointing out that at €6.50 per packet of capsule, the cost of a shot was negligible. Obviously this ignored the capital cost but even I could work out that at €7 per day over 20 working days I was spending more than two-thirds the price of a Nespresso machine. Cost however was not enough to convince me that this was a good idea.

I focussed on the input resources and output waste. I ignored the resources that go into producing the coffee-making machines, in Starbucks’ case the steel for its industrial coffee machine and in the Nespresso’s case more plastic than I would like. Just looking at the environmental impact per shot I compared my Starbucks’ habit to the potential Nespresso one. I was currently wasting paper cups and plastic lids. Whilst the paper cups are biodegradable, energy is consumed producing both, and in reality the paper probably ends up in an incinerator rather than landfill. The Nespresso option involves an aluminium capsule but no waste with respect to the reusable ceramic cup. However, aluminium is incredibly resource intensive to manufacture. Smelters require ridiculous levels of electricity explaining why they are often built next to nuclear or other power plants. On that basis could a move to Nespresso be justified?

My colleague M watched my environmental dilemma with some mirth and offered another factor to throw into the equation. She announced triumphantly that if the aluminium capsules were the issue, I should not worry as they can be recycled. Before long a special recycling bag – admittedly made from plastic – was produced with instructions about where the capsules can be taken.

Of course, I realised that this was not the whole story so I researched the French Nespresso recycling policy. On the plus side, the process involves recovering the coffee grinds for fertiliser as well as the aluminium casing However, it is not clear from the company’s corporate literature whether the capsules are treated in France or whether they are shipped to developing countries for treatment there?

In sum, the jury was out on which coffee habit is the least detrimental but, in the round I took the view that at least aluminium and coffee grinds are recyclable unlike the silly plastic lids and opted to switch loyalty. Compared to brewing up an espresso on the stove with a Deco style espresso maker, it feels awfully wasteful but in the absence of working from home (or going without coffee altogether), a decision had to be made… and I came down on the side of the Nespresso machine.

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