Sustainability in Coffee: The Continuum

Over the duration of this series, I’ve talked a lot about “moving along the continuum” or “moving along the spectrum” in reference to how we think about sustainability. I’d like to dive into this idea a little deeper, because it applies to how we think about a lot of things Counter Culture—not just sustainability.

Whether it’s rolling out a new employee program or buying a coffee for the first time, we realize that not everything’s going to be perfect at the outset of a project or relationship.

There’s a lot of grey area between black and white, and that leaves room for recognizing potential and working on continuous improvement. In an effort to make this less of an abstract idea, I want to spend the next few posts giving tangible examples of where we’ve been able to work successfully in this grey area to successfully move along the spectrum towards more sustainable practices. I’ll start this exploration with a few internal projects where movement along the spectrum is easiest to measure and the outcomes easiest to control.

One of the initiatives we’ve worked on for a long time is diverting waste from the landfill, both in our operations and as part of our customer packaging. At the roastery in Durham, we generate the usual office trash in addition to lots of waste from green coffee packaging, coffee roasting, and coffee tasting—mainly bags, chaff, and lots of coffee grounds. We’ve recycled our cardboard for a long time, but it wasn’t until we starting composting in 2009 that we had a good way to dispose of all of the coffee grounds and food waste we generate.

That was a big step forward, but still left us with a lots of burlap bags (used in shipping green coffee), GrainPro bags (a plastic bag used as an air-tight/gas-tight liner inside inside of the burlap bags), and chaff (papery seed casing that comes off of coffee beans when roasted). We struggled for a long time with how to divert the GrainPro bags from the trash and finally found an unlikely partner in Walmart. Walmart collects large amounts of used bags from their customers and was willing to add our bags to the mix they give to Trex, a company that creates plastic lumber.

We’ve also struggled with how to get rid of our burlap bags and chaff—both of which are potentially great farming inputs that we’d prefer be used for that purpose instead of sent to the commercial composter. In just the last month, we’ve finally found a farm partner who can pick up the burlap and chaff regularly and for whom these are useful inputs. I list these successes not because I think they’re particularly praise-worthy, but because I want folks to realize that our movement towards maximum landfill diversion has taken years, and that the movement along the spectrum in this case, while tangible, has been incremental.

We have a similar story with our packaging for the coffee that we sell retail and wholesale. Freshly roasted coffee needs to put in a container that will protect it from going stale while also allowing for naturally occurring carbon dioxide to escape. For a long time, this meant foil-lined bags, which were great at protecting the coffee but had no other home except the landfill. Finally, after years of discussion and product testing, we were able to switch our retail-sized coffee bag to a compostable material last year. Again, a big step forward, but it still leaves room for improvement. We have plans to switch our 1.5-pound bags to compostable material this summer, but we haven’t yet found a solution for our 5-pound bags or the non-compostable label stickers, degassing valves, or tin-ties that go on each bag.

Moving along the spectrum from unsustainable towards sustainable can feel daunting, because so much time is spent making small steps towards a goal that can be far away. On the positive side, most of the success of the steps we make internally can be measured, and that makes it easier to see and communicate progress.

In the next post, I’ll talk about “moving along the spectrum” as it relates to our producer-partners and how this concept gets a little messier when measurement isn’t quite so easy.