Coffee: Why the caffeine isn’t the only thing that should keep you up at night

February 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

1,092. To most, just a number. Specifically, the number of dollars the average American spends on coffee each year. As I flipped open to the “Briefing” section of this week’s Time magazine, I was instantly struck by this number.

I thought for a second. $1,092 is quite a large amount of money to spend on just one product. And then, as I thought deeper, I started to raise questions and so my research began. Here’s what I found out about that $1,092:

The average price for brewed coffee is $1.38. To make things simpler, let’s assume that all Americans buy brewed coffee, and always at that average price. What that leads us to figure out is that the average American drinks about 770 cups of coffee a year, or about two per day.

Out for Second Cup

With so much coffee being drunk each day, there must be some sort of environmental impact, right? Well, since we’re assuming that each of these cups is bought, that’s about 770 cardboard or paper cups being used per person per year, for coffee alone. Since most of these cups have plastic coatings, recycling or composting is out of the question. So what kind of impact do these cups make?

The average CO2 emissions for a 16 oz cup w/sleeve, when factoring in the manufacturing and shipping processes, is equivalent to about .11 kg per cup w/sleeve. Multiply that by the number of cups each American drinks, and that’s an emission of 84.7 kg per person per year, just from coffee cups. With over 50% of the approximately 218 million American citizens over 18 years old drinking coffee daily, that’s 9.232 x 10^9 kg of CO2 emissions yearly. And that’s just the cups.

So what about the coffee itself? We spend over $4 Billion annually as Americans to import coffee from around the world, amounting to about 1.394 x 10^9 kg of coffee per year. Add in the fact that we re-export over 2.8 million kg of that coffee, and we’re causing a lot of damage. Take into consideration this chart from, which displays the grams of CO2 emitted per metric ton of freight per km of transport:

Air plane (air cargo), average Cargo B747
500 g
Modern lorry or truck
60 to 150 g
Modern train
30 to 100 g
Modern ship (sea freight)
10 to 40 g
Airship (Zeppelin, Cargolifter ) as planned 55 g

To make the calculation simpler, lets assume an even split between air planes and ships, since the top ten countries we import from (Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Mexico, India, Guatemala, Cote d’Ivoire and Uganda) would generally be sending their product by these methods. Taking an average, we can say that it costs about 270 g or .27 kg of CO2 per metric ton of freight per km of shipping. So taking this further, based on a weighted average weight of exports and distance from NYC (a coffee drinking, highly populated seaport that can serve as an estimated location), this comes out to a rough estimate of 1.12 x 10^10 kg of CO2 emissions just from transporting coffee to America each year.

Between the coffee and the cups, this habit causes 2.0432 x 10^10 kg of CO2 each year. And this is before we consider the emissions from the water transport and heating, not to mention the costs of sugar, milk, stirrers or spoons, and all of the other things that go into a good cup of coffee. And then of course one could look into fair trade, and how this has affected the ecosystems of the world, and dozens of other environmental effects.

So what can we take from this? Of course, these numbers are by no means perfectly accurate. However, take this as a rough estimate to understand the magnitude of environmental damage such a seemingly minor thing can cause. Your two daily cups of coffee can add to the tens of billions of kilograms of CO2 released – that’s no longer such a small number.

The initial reaction I’m sure many people would have to this data is to try to ban coffee, or to personally give it up to try to make a difference. Think about this though: If one person gave up coffee for a year, it would only change the amount of CO2 emissions by only 1 10-millionth of a percent. Plus, the people who would give up coffee would be giving up something they love, or potentially even need. But consider this instead: If every person in America drank from reusable cups, that would cut CO2 emissions in half – and wouldn’t destroy the economies of coffee producing nations, nor would anyone have to give up a favorite habit

I hope this was as eye-opening to you all as it was to me. It’s incredible to think about the magnitude in which seemingly simple things can affect our planet. I hope you all stop to consider this, and other similar concepts as you go through your day to day lives. Leave some feedback!

Special thanks to!


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