I was planning on jumping straight to ways to avoid coffee cup waste on the road, but I realized that the problem can be avoided much earlier: Don’t even hit the coffee shops to begin with.
While this may seem like an overly simplified way to go about things (many of my ideas are), let’s think about it. Say the average cup of coffee at your local Coffee Peets & Starbucks conglomerate costs $2. If you get a cup of coffee every morning, five days a week, over a 50-week period (I’m assuming you have a nice boss and get two weeks paid vacation … and dental), that’s $500 over the course of a year.
While $500 seems like enough of an incentive, it doesn’t stop there. You’ve also got to factor in the wasted time standing in line in the store (3 minutes per cup would add up to 12.5 hours during a year), the waste you are creating (250 cups, covers, and warmer sleeves), and, while it can’t be quantified, the extra money you are paying in taxes for all that waste to be disposed of (where do you think landfill and recycling money comes from?). So it’s costing you a lot more than you even recognize, it’s just that because it’s spread out over time, it doesn’t seem that bad.
As an alternative that will save you money, save on waste, and save on time, I’d like to suggest trying to make your cup of joe at home.
Let’s start with coffee makers. There are a ton of electric models on the market and if you have one, then by all means, dust it off and see if it still works. Having said that, if you don’t own one, consider buying one used on (www.craigslist.org) craigslist or a similar site. Some may balk at buying a used coffee maker, but run a concentrate of vinegar and water through it a few times, clean it up, and it’ll be good as new. We had a used Mr. Coffee (or was it a Ms. Coffee, I can’t recall) that we used for years that cost us $10 at a tag sale. One note, however: Unplug them when not in use. Doing so will not only be safer (ever leave it on when you head out of the house for the day?) but will save on energy (that little clock timer is sucking power every second it’s plugged in).
Now, staying with the auto drip coffeemaker theme for a second, let’s talk about filters. There are really two ways to go; “disposable” and reusable. The paper “disposable” filters come in white (bleached) and brown (unbleached) and there is some debate over whether or not the bleached ones are a problem as they may leach chemicals into your java. I don’t really need to see any big studies to recognize that a chance of drinking bleach doesn’t sit as well with me as opting not to in the first place, so I’d go with the brown ones if “disposable” is your choice.
While the paper filters do a slightly better job at catching all of the grounds, a metal reusable is a much better way to go in my opinion. The paper filters will run you about $2 for a 100-pack while the reusable (which you can toss in the dishwasher if you’d like) will run you just under $10. The metal filters will save you money and cut down on waste. We’ve been using them for years and have never had a complaint.
Back to coffee makers, if electric auto is your thing, than have at it. Personally, I prefer one of two less energy intensive methods. The first is a French drip coffee maker. We actually have one from camping a few years ago and use it all the time. You put in grounds, pour in hot water let it sit, and plunge. No mess, no fuss, and a really good cup of coffee. The other method is similar to an auto called a Melitta. It’s basically a carafe that has a little filter holder on top. Pour the water in and it will filter through the grounds, emptying down into the carafe. Voila, coffee sans coffee maker.
As for the coffee itself, here’s my suggestion. Many stores now sell coffee in bulk using their own generic bags. Fill one of these up, pay for it, bring it home (you can grind at the store or at home) and then empty the coffee into an airtight container (a Tupperware will work fine). Then fold up the bag, stick it in your reusable shopping bag and you’ll have it there next time to bring back to the store. You’ll never have to toss one of those plastic/metallic coffee bean bags in the trash again.
A pound of coffee will make somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 cups of coffee (by my estimation) and will sell for about $10 or less. For 250 cups of coffee, you’re looking at $50 compared to $500 on the go, and you’re cutting down on your waste stream by a major factor. And while we’re on coffee, I’d suggest checking out fair trade beans as opposed to non-fair trade. The prices are now comparable and you’ll feel better for having supported a sustainable living wage for the farmers.
And finally, wondering what to do with those coffee grounds when you are done with making your morning cup, check out these tips for more than enough ideas.
While making your cup at home may seem like a lot of work it really isn’t. If you have an auto drip maker, you can set it up the night before, plug it in before your shower and voila, coffee when you are done. If you are using one of the other methods I mentioned, you can look for your eyeglasses while the water is boiling, and then it’s just pouring it over the grinds, add milk and sugar, and drink.
Like anything else, making your own coffee at home takes a bit of experimenting and a bit of training, but you’ll soon realize it’s not that hard. There are a few costs that I can’t quantify, like the electricity/gas it takes to boil the water, but overall, you’ll more than save the price of a maker and metal filter in the first year alone. If anyone has any other energy/waste saving tips on the coffee making front, please feel free to share.
Next up: Coffee on the road and how to avoid those darn cups.
Dave Chameides is an environmental educator and freelance filmmaker. He writes alternative fuel articles for Edmunds.com and maintains the blogs 365 Days of Trash and Achieving Sustainability. While he is presently saving all of his trash for a year to better understand his environmental impact, his main focus is sustainability through education and believes that with knowledge all things are possible.