Coffee is an essential aspect of people’s day-to-day life, and you probably have more than one cup a day if you love coffee. But if you’ve been living a zero waste life, your coffee brewing routine may need a little bit of work.
Making coffee at home often involves single-use items and plastic containers thrown away right after use. Not to mention the coffee grounds you generate from each cup!
A K-cup machine is particularly notorious for generating tons of water through coffee pods. Although it’s a convenient choice (insert the pod and add water), it isn’t a sustainable way of starting your morning routine.
If you’re looking to make your coffee routine more sustainable, we prepared a comprehensive guide of what you need to know.
Coffee Making Tools
There are several ways you can make zero waste coffee. Each option has its pros and cons, but all these methods will give you a great cup of morning coffee.
The french press is one of the most popular zero waste coffee-making tools we know. It is straightforward and can be bought nearly anywhere that sells kitchen materials, making it the ideal option for beginners.
It’s a straightforward gadget made from glass, stainless steel, or plastic. We highly recommend buying the ones made from glass or stainless steel as they will likely last longer than the plastic ones, and they’ll have a better lifecycle outcome.
When using a french press, all you need to do is place the coffee grounds directly into the container and pour hot water (not boiling water) over it. Stir, cover, and let it sit for around 4 minutes. You can do whatever ratio you prefer, but starting with a 1:12 balance is generally recommended.
Don’t hesitate to use more coffee if you want a more robust cup! Getting the correct ratio for your palate will take some trial and error, so don’t be afraid to experiment.
Once the coffee has soaked in the water for a few minutes, all you need to do is push down the plunger and pour your coffee. It’s super quick, simple, and is an excellent grounding activity to start your day.
However, although the method is simple and relatively challenging to mess up, there are some things you need to remember to get the best results.
First, use coarse ground coffee. Using extremely fine coffee grounds will not give you the best results and will cause plenty of sediment in your cup once it settles, and a coarse grind will provide the best flavor payoff.
Next, it’s essential to use water at the right temperature, and it should be no lower than 190 degrees Fahrenheit but careful not to go above 200. That’s a pretty small range, but you should get used to it with some practice.
If you don’t have a cooking thermometer, just let the water boil, turn off the heat, and let it sit for about half a minute. That should give you, more or less, the right temperature.
Perhaps one of the best qualities this brewing method has is that it’s easy to do anywhere. If you’re traveling, it’ll be easy to bring your press and drink your fresh coffee hot wherever you may be.
A Moka pot is a stovetop brewing method. It is typically made from metal and yields a robust and espresso-like cup of coffee.
A Moka pot coffee is often compared to Turkish coffee, but the two are very different! Where Turkish coffee uses boiling water and coffee grounds, a Moka pot uses pressure to make the coffee; resulting in a cup that’s quite unlike its filtered counterparts.
Electronic Drip Coffee Maker
An automatic drip coffee machine is probably something we all have at home or the office. Like the press, it’s easy to use.
Automatic drip machines come in various sizes, forms, and designs. And at this point, there are countless variations made of different materials and coming from other home appliance brands.
You can even get coffee makers with detailed brew settings to make it a more customizable experience.
One of the downfalls of a drip coffee maker is that it often uses disposable filters. Although these paper filters may be compostable, the reality is that most of them will go to landfills without being composted.
Plus, there may have been chemicals used during the production process that aren’t precisely eco friendly.
Fortunately, you don’t have to go that route!
You can purchase zero waste coffee filters, such as those made of metal or cloth. Unlike single uses filters, these reusable ones last a considerable amount of time. And like any other material, the longer you get to use it, the less environmental impact you will most likely generate.
There are also plastic filters, but those are generally less sustainable than their stainless steel and cloth counterparts.
When buying a zero waste coffee filter, we could recommend buying ones from organic cotton as those tend to be more sustainable and better for the environment, not to mention more ethical. You can read more about sustainable fabrics here.
Regardless of whichever one you choose for your coffee maker, make sure it suits your tastes and gives you a fresh, clean cup of plastic-free coffee.
Pour Over Coffee
Pour-over coffee is another drip method that’s well-appreciated by many coffee lovers all over the globe.
It’s simple, methodical, and yields the perfect cup. But just like with the automatic coffee maker, there can be some issues when it comes to the coffee filters. Similarly, we would recommend looking for sustainable alternatives to conventional filters.
A cloth or stainless steel filter will serve a similar purpose without generating much waste. A viable alternative for your manual drip is a Coffee Sock, which can last more than a year and are compostable.
Another option for zero waste coffee would be a traditional espresso machine. This option is perfect for serious coffee drinkers and those who want a deep, rich taste out of their coffee.
However, espresso machines can be a little expensive. While they do make great coffee, they also cost the most upfront. If you don’t like your coffee strong, then an espresso machine may not be the best choice for you.
If you’re a fan of coffee brewing but don’t have the budget for an espresso machine, then try out a Moka pot.
Going the cold brew route is an underrated way of having your coffee, and it produces a smooth cup of coffee that isn’t too bitter or too watery.
Plus, all the materials you need to make cold brew you probably already have at home! With some coarse grounds, water, a glass jar (or any container, really), and a strainer, you’ll be good to go! Make sure to set your coffee grinder to a coarse grind to achieve the best taste from your coffee.
Just mix a ratio of 1:4 (coffee to water) in a container and leave it in the fridge for 12 hours or overnight. By the following day, you’ll have a fresh cup ready to go.
Cold brew is perfect for iced coffee since the ice will dilute some of the coffee’s strength. Add a splash of milk and top of with a glass or stainless steel straw.
But if you want your zero waste coffee warm, you can pour it in a cup and heat it. If serving warm, it’s a good idea to add some water to dilute it a bit. But if your preference is strong coffee, this step isn’t necessary.
The Coffee Beans
Of course, we can’t forget about the coffee beans themselves!
Zero waste coffee grounds don’t only have to be plastic-free; they should also be sustainable and ethical.
Buying coffee beans is much better than purchasing coffee grounds since whole beans stay fresher for longer. Due to the larger surface area on the grounds, they lose flavor and freshness much faster, which is why a coffee grinder is vital in making your coffee at home.
Let’s talk about how your coffee beans are packaged. Zero waste coffee beans typically come in biodegradable packaging or no packaging at all!
You can buy zero waste coffee beans at your local bulk goods or zero waste store, and there are even beans available in coffee shops. And if possible, you can even buy beans from local farmers!
Just remember to buy coffee beans as fresh as possible, so you get the best coffee out of them.
Coffee grounds are much more challenging to find zero waste options for. Since they lose freshness quickly, most retailers will package them in nonbiodegradable packaging to seal in the flavor for as long as possible.
For this reason, we would recommend buying coffee grounds only if you can find sustainable packaging for them.
Flavor and freshness aren’t the only considerations. Perhaps more importantly, we also must consider where the beans come from.
The coffee industry has long since been rife with ethical issues, especially when it comes to the treatment and proper compensation of the farmers and these issues persist to this day.
The standard recommendation is to purchase fair trade beans to ensure that the farmers involved in coffee production are compensated fairly and operate in safe working conditions.
However, there have also been issues with the fair trade certification, namely that the fair trade premium may no longer be enough to cover living wages.
Like with many things in the sustainability industry, there will be some gray areas that can be challenging to navigate. Although we cannot verify these allegations, we can purchase coffee with more caution.
The best option you have is to buy directly from your local farmers. Buying directly from them cuts the number of intermediaries, which means they get more out of each transaction. Buying local also means reduced carbon emissions generated by the transportation process—a double win!
Apart from wages and packaging, coffee production also has environmental consequences. More specifically, deforestation.
Due to climate change and the increasing risk of floods in low-lying areas, coffee producers are now being forced to move to higher ground, causing significant environmental repercussions.
The best way to go about this is to be more vigilant about where you buy your beans.
Some starting points would be to ask where the beans are made, under what conditions, and what the producers are doing to combat further damage.
Shade-grown and local (or fair trade) beans are the most sustainable options for zero waste coffee.
Buying From A Coffee Shop
Although we are committed to buying zero waste coffee, there may be some situations where our only choice is to buy coffee from our local café. But there are certain environmental costs to doing so:
According to the BBC, in 2011, there were an estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups thrown away every year.  And in 2017, Starbucks used almost 4 Billion paper cups!  Far away from a Zero Waste solution.
Of course, most of these cups are not recycled. Therefore, you can see the problem with getting your coffee cup on the go.
While paper is still a better option than plastic cups, it shouldn’t be treated as the ultimate alternative.
Paper cups are pretty helpful for several reasons. First, they do not alter the taste of the coffee, and they are pretty easy to mass-produce. However, recycling them is difficult as they have a plastic lining that is quite cumbersome to take out.
This plastic lining is the main reason why your single cup of coffee can hold the liquid without leaks or spillage anywhere.
Plus, recycling paper is not made for every neighborhood, and many small towns cannot recycle or turn them into reusable products.
The good news is that you can live a zero waste lifestyle while also supporting your local cafes. A simple solution to this is to bring your cup!
Most cafes are willing to forgo their paper or plastic packaging and make way for a more sustainable solution—your reusable cup. There are plenty of different coffee cup variations, but we would recommend buying stainless steel or glass cups.
The insulated ones, in particular, are great for keeping your coffee hot for more extended periods.
Reusable cups made from plastic may not be the ideal choice since they are still mostly come from petroleum-based industries, which is not at all zero waste nor eco friendly.
What To Do With Your Coffee Grounds
Now that we’ve covered how to make your coffee and buy your beans, there is another waste issue when it comes to coffee: the leftover coffee grounds.
Any brewing method will result in wet, leftover grounds. Around 75% of the ground coffee used is thrown into landfills , where they emit plenty of greenhouse gases (i.e., methane).
To stay true to zero waste coffee, it’s a simple matter of composting your grounds once you’re done using them. They’re super helpful for soil and act as an excellent fertilizer, perfect for your garden or backyard.
You can get a compost bin specifically made for smaller homes if you live in an apartment.
Many of you are already zero waste practitioners in real life—trying to reduce waste and limit your impact on the planet as much as possible. Your cup of coffee is no exception.
Whether you prefer a cold brew or a cup of Turkish coffee, there’s a zero waste brewing method for you, and you’ve just got to find the right one.
The great news is that sustainable, zero waste coffee isn’t at all hard to come by! With a few tweaks to your current routine, you’ll be able to cut down your waste in no time.