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Looking at the cost and benefit to lowering environmental impacts through eliminating takeout cups

Learning from the Boston Tea Party experience

United Baristas is currently in the middle of a series on reducing coffee’s carbon footprint. The purpose of the series is to gather relevant information from industry and academia, and present it to the coffee community in a way that allows us to take meaningful actions to drastically reduce our carbon emissions.

Over the weekend Boston Tea Party released their latest takeout cup figures following their removal from service in April 2018. Now, almost two years on, it seems timely to look back and learn some lessons as companies across the industry explore ways to lower their carbon footprint.

The Boston Tea Party experience

In 2018, Boston Tea Party eliminated single-use takeout cups from their 22 stores. The backdrop was the Environmental Audit Committee’s recently proposed Latte Levy, which succeeded in drawing attention to the fact that take-out coffee cups commonly aren’t recycled. There were a number of initiatives across industry, and Boston Tea Party’s approach was one of the most dramatic and probably the most publicised.

Achievements and impacts

Using their figures, since 1 June 2018 to today, Boston Tea Party have reduced their takeout cup use by 260,830.

Assuming an average carbon footprint per cup of 11 grams per cup, that’s a reduction of almost three tonnes. Because reusable cups require washing between uses (and washing is quite energy intensive), the carbon dioxide reduction between using a single-use, takeout cup and a plastic reusable cup is circa two – three grams depending on the washing machine, the embodied energy of the reusable cup, and the number of times that it is reused.

United Baristas has previously unpacked some reasonable takeout cup assumptions to explore a life cycle assessment, which is the methodology to compare various products, processes and behaviours.

Using these inputs, Boston Tea Party has reduced their carbon footprint by about one tonne by eliminating single-use take out cups. That is:

3 grams x 260,830 = 782490 grams
or 782.5 Kg
or 0.8 tonnes

Context and worthwhileness

This is a comparative small quantity of carbon dioxide compared to other aspects of the coffee industry. Here’s three examples:

  • A typically busy coffee shop has a milk carbon footprint of 10 – 20 tonnes / annum – over an order of magnitude greater impact than Boston Tea Party’s reduction. With 22 sites, the milk/mylk carbon footprint is probably in the order of 400 tonnes per annum across the Boston Tea Party business
  • As one tonne of carbon dioxide emissions is produced for every 250 KWh of energy use in the UK. According to one study, that’s the amount of energy used every 10 days by a typical specialty coffee espresso machine (United Baristas will be looking at espresso machine energy consumption shortly, references to follow).

Sustainability is important

United Baristas wants the industry to be viable and vibrant. Sustainability has economic, social and environmental dimensions, and business owners, operators, and baristas continually have to balance these, at times, competing demands. Boston Tea Party’s approach to tackling the environmental impact of takeout cups has had significant economic impacts.

In April 2019, it was widely reported that Boston Tea Party’s takeout revenue had fallen by £250,000, 25 percent, while achieving overall modest sales growth, largely through expansion. Owner Sam Roberts openly acknowledges that many smaller companies would struggle to afford a similar approach.

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The strategic question for many coffee companies is whether similar carbon reductions can be made with with lower financial consequence.

Let’s do what’s easy and important

The coffee industry is right at the start of tackling its carbon emissions, and there are many actions that can be taken which significantly lower our carbon footprint. It’s our position that we should take action on things that are a) easy, or b) significant, and c) ideally both.

There is no one, right approach to tackling this great challenge that lies before us, and it is up to individuals and companies to make the decision that are right for their circumstances. So if you are thinking about lower your carbon footprint in 2020 here’s some ways to make a significant impact at little or no cost:

  • Offset your emissions: It costs about £13 to offset one tonne of carbon dioxide emissions by funding UK tree planing initiatives
  • A medium-sized, busy coffee shop can easily reduce its milk carbon footprint by as much as 10 tonnes through better product selection
  • Don’t unnecessarily fly to origin: a return flight from UK to Costa Rica emits circa 3 tonnes
  • Buy energy-efficient plant such as espresso machines, dishwashers, and fridges
  • Minimise air-conditioning use

Green coffee
Vastly more carbon dioxide is emitted in the preparation and drinking of coffee than in its growing, processing and export – the impetus for action has to fall to ourselves.

Time to take action

Climate change is already having a real affect on coffee producers, impacting their ability to farm viably and threatening their future prospects. Since vastly more carbon dioxide is emitted in the preparation and drinking of coffee than in its growing, processing and export, the impetus for action has to fall to ourselves. It is not too dramatic an assessment to say that this is an existential issue for the industry (not to mention humanity), and therefore it is in our own interest, as well as the benefit of coffee producers, to act now to ensure the ongoing, predictable, and affordable supply of coffee.

The environmental challenge facing the industry is part of the broader sustainability objective. To be sustainable, business has to be all of economically viable, social responsible, and environmentally bearable. There is no single, correct approach for coffee business, and the purpose of this series has been to explore what our impacts are, how they fit with our proposition, and identify what meaningful changes we can make to become more sustainable.

If you are interested in reducing your business’ carbon footprint this year, make yourself a coffee, sit down, and identify where the significant impacts. They are most likely around your energy consumption, milk usage and travel habits. Then build a plan to tackle the low hanging fruit in 2020. There’s some great insights in our series of articles to date, and there is more useful information to come in the coming months – so make sure you follow us for updates.

The challenge before us might be big, but we shouldn’t feel overwhelmed or uncertain. As an industry we’ve got the necessary information, energy, intellect, and commitment to make a massive difference and lower our carbon footprint. It’s now up to every one of us to make the best difference we can, so that together we can achieve more. Let’s get started.


What’s your experience?

How are you measuring and reducing your carbon emissions? What are the most impactful ways the coffee industry can lower its carbon footprint? And what actions are you going to take next? Let us know your thoughts and ideas, we’re on all the usual channels.


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