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Is Coffee Bad For the Environment?

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The first thing I do most mornings is head over to my coffee prep station, grind up some beans, pour them into a filter -- quite sloppily, I might add, seeing as I'm still half asleep -- and make my first pot of coffee for the day. Yes, I said first.

Coffee is delicious and wonderful. I will not argue that point. But it's becoming tough out there for coffee drinkers. Not only have drought and disease sent prices soaring by nearly 60 percent, but evidence continues to mount that coffee is one of the biggest wastes of water in the world. Which raises the question: Can you be an environmentally-minded person and still drink coffee?

Coffee's biggest problem in terms of environmental impact is its water footprint. The term is commonly used when discussing food issues like beef production. (Example: It takes 1,850 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef; that is to say, the total water the cow needs to drink; that's needed to grow the cow's feed; that's used to wash the cow, and so on.) Coffee also has a water footprint, and it's a big one: 37 gallons are needed to make one cup.

If you want to break it down in other terms, that's roughly the water it takes for one shower. That may not sound bad, but if you're one of those every day coffee drinkers, you're essentially going through 259 gallons of water a week just to get that little kick in the morning. (Let's not even do the math on four-cups-a-day drinkers like me.) In a normal world, this wouldn't be that big of a deal. But as the state of California preps for what could be its worst drought in history this summer, it's easy to see that our planet is not in a normal phase. Climate change is creating historic drought conditions around the world, and there's no end in sight.

Which isn't to say the problem has gone unnoticed by coffee companies. Some have been looking at ways to lower their water usage per cup, including Nestlé who has lowered their water footprint by 20 percent, while Starbucks has decreased their water usage by 100 gallons per day, per store. Unfortunately, water footprint isn't the only issue with coffee. It also has a pretty decent-sized carbon footprint, seeing as none of it's produced in the U.S.

The beans need to get from the farm to the roaster, from the roaster to the cafe, from the cafe to the consumer, and each of these steps adds a bit of carbon to the mix. The biggest amount of carbon used actually comes at the point of sale, which may not be all that surprising when you consider the vast resources a coffee shop uses. In all, you're looking at roughly 340 grams of CO2 emitted for every large latte consumed. That's not near the levels of the amount of CO2 coming out of your car's tailpipe, but it does add up.

So, what do us coffee drinkers do? How do we get our fix and still act as concerned citizens of the world?

Tea with caffeine is a good alternative. On average, one cup of tea needs only 9 gallons of water to produce, and loose tea generates a carbon footprint of around 20 grams of CO2 per cup. Pomegranate juice is another way to go, as it's full of energizing elements. Green smoothies chock full of kale and chard are also good options.

And... oh, who am I kidding? Coffee is coffee. If you wanted to drink something else, you'd do it. But you don't, because coffee is the best. There are, however, a few "better" methods to obtaining your coffee.

Some companies, such as Grounds for Change in Washington state, produce carbon neutral coffee by offsetting the emissions associated with their coffee's production. Trimming down on the lattes helps too, as they're the drinks that consume the most water, up to 52 gallons for a single cup. Bring your refillable bottles to shops instead of using their disposable cups and sleeves, as those items add to the water footprint total as well.

Or maybe just take a few days a week off. Drink coffee three days a week instead of seven, and you're saving 148 gallons of water a week. That's a good start.

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