A critical view on climate impact in the coffee industry
Barista Hustle has commenced work on a free course called The Decision Tree that helps baristas and cafe owners make informed decisions about how to operate in a world beset by climate change. This interview is an excerpt from the course. We acknowledge that our industry has a history of colonialism, exploitation, and green washing. The intention of this course is to put readers in the driver’s seat. With the help of wonderful people like Professor Stephen Abbott (who has produced an app for this course that gives everyone access to the technology you need to run your own life cycle analysis) this course will inspire you to reduce your emissions. From the first lesson, you will discover how baristas can make a gigatonne-difference to cutting carbon. This course will be published in episodes here on our blog and will go out to our BH Unlimited subscribers with their unlimited updates.
Interview with Dr. Adam Carr
Dr Adam Carr runs the Coffee Science and Education Centre at Seven Miles coffee roasters in Sydney, Australia. Dr Carr previously worked as a researcher in chemical engineering, with a focus on high temperature water technologies, so it was perhaps inevitable that he’d eventually transfer those skills to the coffee industry.
In 2018, he conducted a life cycle assessment (LCA) focused on reducing the CO2 footprint of a typical cafe in Australia, which showed some simple changes that cafes can implement to greatly reduce their environmental impact.
According to this LCA, up to half of the carbon emissions of a typical cafe come from the electricity needed to power the espresso machine. This suggests that, depending on your machine, reducing power consumption by turning your machine off overnight or switching to eco mode, can have a big impact on CO2 emissions, and save money in the process.
The next largest contribution to the CO2 footprint, at more than a quarter, comes from the amount of milk used. Reducing milk wastage, or encouraging the use of alternatives, also has the potential to greatly reduce CO2 emissions.
By contrast, the emissions from disposable cups made up only 0.6% of the total calculated emissions. This is a great example of how an LCA can help a business target the most effective interventions to reduce their carbon footprint. You can read the full summary of the findings from the LCA here.
Barista Hustle – What prompted Seven Miles to undertake an LCA?
Adam Carr – When I started at Seven Miles, there was a lot of talk about the sustainability of paper cups and their impact on the environment, but I found no reliable facts around what the carbon footprint of any part of the coffee making process was. So, as I have done LCAs in my former life as a research engineer, I did one to gain clearer insight!
BH – Did you work with a consultant, use an app, or compute the figures directly yourselves?
AC – I built it from the ground up. As a chemical engineer, my training is fundamentally about mass and energy balances, which is most of what LCAs are at their core. Most programs also make assumptions that may or may not be erroneous, so to avoid bogus results, and to gain greater clarity, we calculated most of the results in-house (i.e. those that weren’t already published in a reliable source).
BH – You mention that you found full ‘cradle to grave’ assessments for some processes in the literature, but others required some assumptions and computation (e.g. food for cafes). Where data wasn’t already available in the literature, how did you estimate or compute these numbers?
AC – The assumptions vary significantly, so it’s hard to give a catch-all answer! Some were simple: we had to assume the mass of a ‘standard egg’, which has an associated carbon footprint available in the literature for, for example, a 70g egg. It got more complicated when we needed to estimate the energy required to cook it (assume a natural gas burner, burning at some line pressure, at a standard energy output, for a determined amount of time), and add the carbon emissions of this on top of what it takes to farm an egg-laying chicken. This value was taken from an average of values from a range of websites and academic journals. Assumptions here also included whether the chickens were free range, battery farmed, the feed required and such. And this was only to compute the carbon footprint on a bacon and egg roll! So, you can see how deep the rabbit hole can go with assumptions.
Some published papers on certain aspects are available freely on government websites (e.g. carbon emissions per BTU of energy produced in NSW, Australia), some in academic journals (Swiss ecopoint measurement values and analysis), and some were just computed based on logical assumptions.
BH – What would you do differently if you were going to conduct the analysis again?
AC – I’m fairly happy with the results that we got, as they seemed to mirror one lifecycle analysis available for the whole coffee lifecycle (we only looked at cafes for the blog, though I did go deeper later on). I think if we were to do it differently, we would do some experiments to confirm some of the assumptions about, for example, machines — looking at true energy consumptions for 1- 2- and 3-group machines, heat exchanger vs. multiboiler etc., and back up the assumptions with real-world measurements.
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BH – Would you expect to see similar results for all cafes?
AC – Yes, on the basis that (as shown from our results), over 50% of the environmental footprint for a café is due to the operation of espresso machines, and we published our results on a per-kilo of coffee consumed basis. There may be as much as a 10% overall variation in the LCA per café assuming that cafes have a 100% difference in food wastage, but that’s small potatoes compared to the overall footprint.
BH – What advice would you give to smaller businesses wanting to understand how to minimise their own footprint?
AC – As per our results, we do recommend idling your coffee machine in a low power state overnight, or even turning it off. We found there is not an insignificant cost saving (as well as CO2 saving) to be had, even if it’s 5 hours until the cafe’s next service time.
BH – What changes did you make to improve your sustainability after conducting the LCA? Which of these changes gave you the most environmental ‘bang’ per buck?
AC – It’s funny, being a roastery and not a café, most of what we can do is to tell people what we found! However, as mentioned, I did take the LCA further to look at the whole coffee supply chain, and as a roastery we have now installed solar panels to offset all electricity usage for our operation, and have implemented a bag, coffee pod and coffee cup recycling program. As a whole, the waste in roasteries is very small compared to cafes or at the consumer level, but anything we can do to minimize our footprint is top of mind!
BH – Energy use seems to be the biggest source of emissions for most cafes. What are the easiest ways for cafes to reduce the energy use involved in coffee making?
AC – As per the answer above, using a coffee machine with a built-in eco mode can reduce power consumption at idle by 50%. This can save both money and carbon. Similarly, an interesting alternative is to use machines like the Übermilk/barissima to froth your milk. It heats using resistance coils rather than by steam, so significant energy savings can be had here. Also, as it dispenses milk directly and precisely, there’s lower food wastage, which can account for 26% of the footprint of a café (at least, in Australia). In fact, from some tests we found that you could save 20% on your milk consumption using precise milk dosing systems, which eases the burden on your wallet, and the environment. The best solutions always have this result, of course.