Coffee - How Our Caffeine Addiction Is Bad for the Planet

We can individually take responsibility for our own actions, but to make big changes decisions need to be taken on a national, continental and even global scale. If the big coffee companies are going to make billions out of our legal addiction, they need to be forced to clean up the mess that's left afterwards.
Shutterstock / violetkaipa

In the middle of the last century a Swiss scientist called Peter Witt began testing minute amounts of various drugs on spiders, and seeing how they spun their webs when off their tiny minds. Some of these results were not exactly surprising. Arachnids dosed with sleeping pills crept off for a little snooze. Those on marijuana had initial bouts of creativity, but then seemed to lose interest and forget what they were doing. Those on LSD made the central spokes of the web, lending to aesthetic appeal, but kind of forgot the sticky entrapment threads that give the web any function.

However, one of the most dramatic results was from spiders dosed with caffeine. In high doses, they spun webs that were erratic, chaotic, little more than a few threads hung at random, and utterly useless for their job of catching insects. All of which proves... well, nothing really. And it's not that surprising considering that caffeine is actually a natural pesticide, a poison alkaloid that plants manufacture to deter bugs and browsers from munching on them. Though nowadays the experiments would make Peter an ideal candidate for an Ignoble award. It does though make me muse a while on my drug of choice.

I'm a clean-living soul, careful about what I eat and drink... but my Achilles heel is caffeine. I only have one strong cup in the morning - any more and I get the jitters, feel uneasy, can't sleep, and grind my teeth uncontrollably - yet I'm addicted. On expeditions where I can't get my fix, I get irritable, listless, and have nagging headaches. The evident power of this legal drug makes me seriously concerned about the marketing of high-caffeine fizzy drinks to youngsters. Some have a five espresso-busting 400mg in a can, which is the amount identified by clinicians as posing entry-level overdose risk, and could even possibly lead to cardiac arrest. Just 200mg can take 40hours to be metabolized by the human body. However, I have other concerns about the explosion of caffeine in our modern world.

Just a few years ago, my local village got a coffee shop, and people grumbled that it would never catch on. Now we have nine. Not to mention all the pubs, gyms, bars etc that have proper a coffee machine. Each one throws out about ten kilos of coffee grounds every single day, adding up to half a million tonnes being dumped in landfill each year nationwide. This part of the equation has a relatively easy solution, as the grounds are organic matter, will eventually biodegrade, and even better can be recycled. There are numerous start-ups such as Bio-Bean aiming to collect the grounds on a large scale, dry them, and turn them into pellets that can be burned for fuel, or even to power cars and trucks. Another is using the grounds to grow specialty organic mushrooms.

But what about all the cups? We use around three billion single use cups every year, but as they're treated with plastics or wax so we don't burn our fingers they're difficult to recycle, and 99.9% end up in landfill. We can instantly ease this by bringing our own cup; Starbucks are just one chain that offer a 25p discount if you bring your own mug. I reckon though it should be the other way around; if the mega chains were forced to charge for disposable cups, it could change attitudes in the same way as the plastic bag tax has done. Anyone who doubted this would work can eat their words, there have been 80% fewer single-use bags given out since regulations came in, and tens of millions already raised for charitable causes.

So far, so positive. But a real demon is lurking in our own homes, and it's one that I myself am guilty of. A few years ago my mum gave me a coffee machine for Christmas, and it was the greatest present ever. I could have a barista quality coffee every morning, quickly, easily and without any mess. But the little pods the coffee came in were made of aluminium. And even one-cup Backshall gets through a shedload of them. The organic material remains inside them, so cannot degrade or be reused, and the pods themselves have too many different elements and parts to be recyclable. Some sources suggest it would take such a pod 500 years to degrade. Last year more than £112million worth of these capsules were sold, roughly 260 million pods; up a third from 2014. By 2020 analysts suggest we'll be buying more pods than teabags!

One Italian producer has come up with a biodegradeable pod made from 'biopolymers', another from plant-based fibres. And some pods can be recycled if you take them in in person to the manufacturer or boutique where you bought them. Some initiative such as Nespresso's 'ecolaboration' could even possibly arrange to collect them from you. These are a long way away from being convenient enough for anyone to actually do them and, until that happens, these pods are going to be poured endlessly into big holes in the ground by the thousands of tonnes.

Recycling is about changing attitudes, and it works. First governments legislate, people get grumpy, but they adapt. Sooner or later they end up demanding methods improve, become more convenient and further reaching. Eventually it becomes a way of life. Less than a decade ago my local area brought in recycling bins, and determined that they would only collect conventional waste once a fortnight. There was uproar. The streets were like the bag scene from American Beauty, and rats and gulls had a high old time. Now on bin day the recycling bins are overflowing, and the conventional waste bins almost empty.

Almost half of our household waste across the nation is recycled, and that has huge benefits for all of us. We can individually take responsibility for our own actions, but to make big changes decisions need to be taken on a national, continental and even global scale. If the big coffee companies are going to make billions out of our legal addiction, they need to be forced to clean up the mess that's left afterwards.


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