Large Cuppa Greenhouse Gas

Product life cycle impacts can be measured in more than one way.  The Large Cup image nearby shows the virtual water required to make a cup of coffee. However, other types environmental impacts are also worth considering, such as fossil energy use, fertilizer and pesticide run-off from coffee plantations, or greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to climate change.

For this plastic cup of iced coffee that is being discarded, GHG emissions occur all through the production chain. The most obvious are emissions from burning fuel used to roast the coffee beans or heat up a water kettle on a gas stove. If you enjoy decaf coffee, GHG emissions were produced to make the steam required for decaffeination.

Electricity is used at multiple points in the coffee life cycle, to operate equipment, to heat up water for brewing, and to cool the whole drink back down with ice. Depending on how that electricity is generated, GHGs will be produced from burning fuel or producing the materials needed for renewable technologies like solar cells and wind turbine blades.

Did you leave room for milk? As ruminant animals, cows belch methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Even when you are done with the coffee, the GHGs keep coming, as the (mostly carbon) plastic cup and straw are likely incinerated here in the Northeast, leading to further emissions.

All in all, a large iced coffee drink leads to approximately 350 g CO2 equivalents.[1] Visualized as a gas at room temperature and atmospheric pressure, this amount would take up nearly 200 liters, making a cup that is very hard to fit into the bin.

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[1] Berners-Lee, M., 2011. How bad are bananas?: the carbon footprint of everything. Greystone Books.

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