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Environment professor dilutes coffee-is-bad-for-climate change study

Are coffee pods really a better option?

A professor of environmental sciences is challenging headline-grabbing research out of Canada which claims traditional coffee preparation methods are worse for the climate.

A BBC headline read “Coffee pod carbon footprint better for planet than filtered brew.”

But the University of California Riverside’s Andrew Gray said the University of Quebec study didn’t consider coffee pods’ long-term environmental impact.

The study examined greenhouse gas (GHG) effects of coffee production from start to finish and concluded traditional filtered coffee results in the most GHGs. This is due to the quantity of coffee needed to make a single cup, as well as the energy to heat water and keep coffee still in the pot hot.

Coffee pods, like those used in Keurig machines, are more climate-friendly as they “prevent overconsumption” by saving “between 11 to 13 grams of coffee per use.” (Instant coffee actually was deemed the most climate-friendly; however, this it is not widely consumed.)

Gray (pictured), who studies “the movement of plastic and microplastic pollutants through the environment,” told UC Riverside News that “in addition to CO2, there are a lot of other chemicals produced by plastic products like coffee pods that affect the environment, particularly once they’ve been thrown away.”

“To truly claim a product is better for the planet, it would be good to see an approach that accounts for the long-term persistence of plastics in our environment, particularly in our water,” the professor added.

MORE: Student receives praise for bogus paper on how milk is a ‘colonizer’ of coffee

Despite the study noting consumers “should […] be aware of the capsule recycling options” where they live, Gray said coffee pods rarely are recycled because they get spoiled with the product (coffee). “Plastic packaging and plastic items directly fouled with food tend to have some of the lowest recycling rates of all plastics,” he said.

From the article:

Q: What are some of the health concerns with microplastics that come from the eventual breakdown of products like coffee pods?

Gray: Some recent work on the toxicity of microplastics includes potential impacts on reproductive health, especially for males. There are concerns about inflammation. Micro and nanoplastic particles can cross organ boundaries and move through cell walls.

These particles get loaded with a wide range of compounds during production and can pick up additional compounds as they move through the environment, like heavy metals or other contaminants like PFOS, which are possible carcinogens and endocrine system disruptors.

Q: What is the ultimate takeaway, for you, from a study like this one?

Gray: Again, there is plenty of utility in going through these kinds of exercises, but it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind. Saying one consumer product is great for the environment and another is terrible puts a lot of emphasis on consumer behavior.

U. Quebec study co-author Luciano Rodrigues Viana said long-term reusable coffee pods are a good solution to “reduc[ing] the amount of waste” and he suggested people drink less coffee by being aware of how much product and water is actually necessary for its preparation.

MORE: Law prof: ‘Hi-tech capitalist solutions’ for climate change are racist

IMAGES: WaywardFOx/Twitter screencap; UC Riverside screencap

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Dave has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over 18 years, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars. Dave holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware.