A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of the carbon footprint of coffee

Ben James
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December 14, 2021
packaging research journal carmen nab

As coffee comes increasingly under threat from rising global temperatures, it has become more important than ever to lower carbon emissions. To find out the carbon footprint of the coffee supply chain, Carmen Nab carried out a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) as part of her Master of Science at University College London.


Coffee, like many agricultural goods, has a lot to lose from climate change.

Its sensitivity to minute alterations in temperature, rainfall, and soil quality, means the land suitable for its successful growth is diminishing at an alarming rate.

According to a recent paper published in Science Advances, a peer-reviewed journal, more than 60% of coffee species are at risk of extinction as a result of climate change.

This will not only drastically affect the landscape of coffee production, but also put the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers at risk.

While the supply of coffee itself is not solely to blame for climate change, as the world’s second-most traded good it contributes its fair share of carbon emissions.

To reveal the scale of its contribution, Carmen Nab carried out studies into the carbon footprint of a cup of coffee as part of her Msc at University College London (UCL).

Collaborating with Professor Mark Maslin, she focused specifically on coffees from the two biggest producers, Vietnam and Brazil, and their export to the UK.

Carmen tells me that the aim of the study was to contribute to a more thorough understanding of coffee’s carbon footprint.

“Before this research, no comprehensive life cycle assessment of arabica coffee’s carbon footprint had been completed,” she says.

“With many consumers increasingly hoping to lower their carbon footprint, for example by switching to reusable cups and non-dairy milk alternatives, we set out to analyse whether these solutions were effective in the case of coffee.”

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Calculating the carbon footprint of coffee

Working out the carbon footprint of any good is a challenge – not least for coffee.

For one, it is difficult to know precisely how detailed to go. Do you need to consider the type of fuel used for transportation? The impact of deforestation? The brand of pesticides used during cultivation?

To ensure the most accurate and representative results, Carmen decided to carry out a Life Assessment Cycle (LCA).

An LCA involves mapping out all activities of a product’s production, distribution, and consumption, followed by a quantification of all impacts associated with these activities.

“The wide-ranging nature of the coffee chain, with many individuals and companies of different types and sizes involved, makes an LCA the most accurate way of quantifying the environmental impact of each stage in coffee production,” Carmen explains.

“We used two case studies – Brazil and Vietnam – which together produce over 50% of the world’s arabica coffee. We added up the total carbon produced per kilogram of green coffee at each stage of coffee’s life cycle to get a total footprint “

The life cycle of coffee can be divided into four general stages: production, transportation, roasting, and consumption.

While the first three stages are similar across all coffees, the consumption stage can be broken down further depending on the type of product.

For example, filter coffees include packaging, distribution, grinding, brewing, and disposal. Canned coffees, on the other hand, include mass liquor brewing, liquor transport, canning, distribution, storage, and disposal.

This becomes particularly important when milk is taken into account. 

“Milk itself has a massive footprint,” Carmen says. “This is largely because of the methane produced by cows, which makes up 50-60% of its carbon footprint. But it’s also because of the carbon released in producing cattle feed.”

Findings

Although an LCA does not consider the total environmental impact of coffee, it can reveal some interesting findings.

One of the most significant from Carmen’s research was the impact of exportation on the overall carbon footprint of coffee.

“In all scenarios analysed, the majority of carbon was produced in the exportation phase – when coffee beans are transported from the country of origin to the UK,” she tells me.

“Traditionally, coffee has been exported via cargo ship – but in the pursuit of fresher, ‘premium’ coffee, roasters are increasingly importing coffee via air transport.

“While this reduces transportation time, the increase in environmental impact is significant. Switching from cargo ship to freight flight massively increases the carbon footprint of coffee – our research estimated an increase of more than 70%.”

After exportation, Carmen found that the use of agrochemicals during production had a considerable effect on total carbon emissions.

“For coffee shipped via cargo ship, an estimated 75% of the carbon footprint was from pesticides and fertilisers,” she says.

“Yet previous studies have shown that replacing the pesticides with natural pest-solutions and using only organic waste as fertiliser can remove this carbon footprint almost entirely, while saving local farmers money and keeping yields constant.”

Based on these findings, it’s clear that the stages before consumption are the most carbon-intensive. However, consumption activities are among the easiest to change, with the responsibility as much on roasters and coffee shops as it is on the consumers themselves.

“Using non-dairy milk alternatives is an easy way for consumers to lower their coffee’s carbon footprint,” Carmen explains.

“While the carbon footprint of coffee production is higher than that of milk (per mL), the larger proportion of milk than coffee used in beverages resulted in a significant increase in carbon footprint.”

Packaging is another area that contributes to carbon emissions – but, again, its impact can be easily reduced.

From a carbon perspective, Carmen says packaging and takeaway cups have a relatively small impact. However, switching to recyclable and compostable alternatives is essential for a more sustainable supply chain.

“When multiplied by billions of cups of coffee a day, this relatively small contribution per cup adds up to a very significant carbon footprint,” she says.

“Environmental sustainability is a multi-faceted problem – and having a relatively low carbon footprint doesn’t necessarily equal sustainability.”

For coffee businesses, it is essential to keep down carbon emissions and look for ways of creating a more sustainable supply chain. While coffee packaging and takeaway cups are a relatively small part of this, switching to recyclable and compostable alternatives can make a real difference.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable coffee packaging options, from side gusset bags to flat-bottom pouches. Roasters can choose from kraft paper rice paper, PLA, and LDPE, all of which minimise waste and contribute to a circular economy.

We also offer recyclable degassing valves and resealable zippers, while all our inks are water-based and low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Our kraft paper bags and cups are FSC-certified and our compostable options are certified compostable by TÜV Austria.

For information on our low MOQ coffee bags, contact our team.

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A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of the carbon footprint of coffee

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