Reclaiming Coffee: Moving from Plastic and Paper to Zero Waste
Second only to tap water, coffee is one of Canada’s most loved beverages. It’s also one of the most wasteful, as every day, millions of Canadians dump disposable coffee cups and packaging in the trash or recycle bin, even though many of these items cannot be recycled.
Barb Hetherington, a lifelong advocate and board member of Zero Waste Canada, explains why coffee waste is bad for the environment.
“The to-go coffee industry, which is the major seller of coffee these days, creates a lot of waste because there’s all these single-use products. You’ve got the lid, the cup, the stir stick, the cream packages, and the sugar packages,” Hetherington said. “You’re using virgin resources, and within 10 minutes, it’s discarded, and it may go to a landfill, or it may create pollution.”
What Is Zero Waste?
Canada’s zero waste movement supports lifestyle changes to eliminate waste, trash, pollution, and incineration, while also working to redesign systems that respect, conserve, and reuse resources.
Hetherington noted that for consumers buying ground coffee or beans, the bags these products are sold in are often not recyclable. Rather than trying to create recyclable cups or bags, Zero Waste Canada recommends using reusable ones.
“We can’t really keep having to-go cups and expecting someone else to solve the problem. You can create recycling systems, but if people don’t use them, or don’t use them properly, then that’s not solving the problem,” she said. “We would prefer people use reusable cups, which are more environmentally beneficial. That’s something that individuals can do—it doesn’t rely on government regulation or business, it just relies on the individual taking their own cup, or supporting a zero waste business.”
Although zero waste businesses are starting to pop up across the country in recent years, the zero waste movement is not new. Beginning in the United Kingdom and United States in the 1980s, zero waste is now a global movement, and the Zero Waste International Alliance was created in the early 2000s to oversee policies and practices.
Before Zero Waste Canada became an incorporated non-profit in 2013, its founding members were involved in the Zero Waste International Alliance. Today, there are Canadian chapters in Vancouver, BC, and St. John’s, NL, that advocate with all levels of government for zero waste policies to create a circular economy, without impacting quality of life.
Fair Trade and the Environment
Eliminating waste doesn't need to be at the expense of product quality. Instead, it involves simple changes to where we put our dollars. Coffee pods, for example, are difficult to recycle and often end up in the trash. To counter this, Ethical Bean, a fair trade coffee roaster, sells biodegradable ones.
“We’re kind of late to the game with coffee pods, because we knew they were so wasteful,” said Stephanie Ray, Ethical Bean’s sales and events coordinator. “But then we found out about the BPI-certified, 100 percent compostable pod, so we decided to jump on that. There’s no need to separate the coffee grounds from the pod, and they break down in a regular compost in 84 days.”
Ethical Bean also offers a coffee bag recycling program and works to ensure that fair trade is at the core of everything it does.
“Fair trade and helping the environment go hand in hand,” Ray said. “Without fair trade, Ethical Bean wouldn’t be the coffee company it is. Fair trade certifications help the environment as well, ensuring producers have more sustainable and diverse farming practices.”
Alternatives to Throw-Away
As far as sustainability is concerned, the way we consume coffee doesn’t add up. Waste causes pollution and threatens human, animal, and plant life. Disposable packaging often ends up in the ocean, collecting at shorelines. Some plastics never degrade, while others can last up to 450 years before breaking down.
It was this concern for the environment that led Kate Pepler to open Halifax’s first zero waste coffee shop in fall 2018. Pepler graduated from Dalhousie University in 2016 with a degree in sustainability, environmental science, and marine biology, and had been working to reduce waste in her own life before opening the Tare Shop.
“I think the big issue overall is our disposable, throw-away society, where we don’t think about our actions or the things we’re purchasing,” Pepler said. “Disposable coffee cups are horrible—a lot of people think that they’re recyclable, but they’re not.”
Pepler’s frustration resulted in a coffee shop that doesn’t use any disposable cups or packaging, and sells bulk goods that can be purchased with reusable containers or bags.
“We have mugs if you’re staying in store, and we also have mugs that were donated to us that people can take for free and then bring back,” she said. “Our baked goods from local suppliers are package-free too.”
On the first day alone, the shop prevented 55 disposable cups and 127 bags from being thrown out. And that’s just one coffee shop, on one day. With thousands of coffee shops across the country, millions of single-use cups and bags are tossed every day.
If we want a future with a healthy planet, action on every level is necessary.
“We all have to make changes—businesses, governments, individuals,” Hetherington said. “We need to reduce the amount of resources that we’re using and discarding, and we need to redesign to make systems more effective so we’re not producing more waste.”
Author: Naomi Zurevinski is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher based in Saskatoon.