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Why Is Instant Coffee The More Sustainable Choice?

February 20, 2023

According to various studies, instant coffee is the most sustainable type of coffee out there. It has a significantly smaller carbon footprint in comparison to other types and methods of making coffee. This takes into consideration the environmental impact associated with each phase of the product’s lifecycle: cultivation, processing, packaging, distribution, preparation & consumption, as well as final waste or disposal.

Photo by Karyna Panchenko on Unsplash.

Fewer Coffee Beans Are Needed

There are a number of reasons, including the fact that instant coffee requires fewer coffee beans in the production process. To form the concentrate that will become instant coffee, around 70% of the coffee bean can be extracted while other types of coffee only extract around 20% of the bean, meaning that more beans are needed to produce a cup of filter coffee, for example. Instant coffee has, in other words, a much higher yield compared to other types of coffee.

Photo by Nguyen Tong Hai Van on Unsplash.

Higher Quantities, Longer Shelf Life

Another reason why instant coffee has a smaller carbon footprint is because it can be produced in high volumes, reducing the amount of energy needed to make the final product. Artisan coffee roasters, for example, prefer roasting their own beans instead of importing beans that have already been roasted in bulk - meaning that there are more roasters performing these processes, collectively using more energy. Instant coffee also has a longer shelf life than other types of coffee, allowing it to remain fresh and be stored for extended periods of time - thereby reducing waste.

Photos by Nathan Dumlao (left) and Jon Tyson (right) on Unsplash.

Less Energy Required Post-Production

It is also important to take into consideration the post-production stages of coffee’s lifecycle when its assessing environmental impact, as the energy used by consumers to prepare and use the product (and, ultimately, dispose of it) is often as significant as the amount of energy it takes to cultivate and process the coffee in the first place. Instant coffee requires less energy as consumers only need hot water (involving the use of a kettle, presumably), while other types of coffee generally require machinery and equipment that use more electricity and resources.

Making a delicious cup of instant coffee does not require any equipment or machinery, only (hot or cold) water.

A drip filter coffee machine that takes a long time to prepare a serving of coffee (and often keeps the coffee warm by continually heating it) increases the carbon footprint of drip filter coffee to almost twice that of a cup of instant coffee. This footprint increases if there is coffee waste, which often happens when coffee is prepared in bulk for multiple people in the household, for example.

Photo by Ben Kolde on Unsplash.

Less Waste

Instant coffee helps combat waste as it can be measured into each cup accordingly and all of the granules are soluble. In other words, all of the instant coffee powder will rehydrate and turn into the drinkable coffee liquid - there are no leftover coffee grounds. If too much water is boiled in the kettle, however, instant coffee’s carbon footprint can increase as more energy and resources are being used (and wasted) in the preparation of a single cup.

An easy way to solve this: only boil as much water as you actually need for your cup of coffee.

What About Milk?

Another reason why other types of coffee have a higher environmental impact than instant coffee is because they include milk. A cappuccino, latte, cortado, or even a filter coffee with a bit of milk, will score much higher on the carbon footprint scale than an instant coffee with no milk. Furthermore, a cup of instant coffee with a bit of milk is still more sustainable than a latte.

Photo by Alberto Bogo on Unsplash.

How can coffee-drinkers reduce their carbon footprint at home?

There are easy ways to minimise your carbon footprint at home when it comes to making your favourite cup of coffee:

  1. Make the right amount of coffee, taking care not to make extra that will go to waste.
  2. If possible, avoid using ‘keep warm’ functions as these are energy-consuming.
  3. Cut down the amount of milk you add to your coffee, or leave it out completely.
  4. If you use a kettle in your coffee-making process, try boil the exact amount of water you need as boiling extra water uses more energy unnecessarily.
  5. Switch to instant coffee.

Want to read more? Here are some useful online sources:

Heller, Martin. 2017. Food Product Environmental Impact Literature Summary: Coffee.

Motoyoshi, Umeko. 2020. Instant Coffee and the Environment.

Sevenster, Maartje. 2018. Sorry, baristas: instant coffee has the smallest carbon footprint (but don’t overfill the kettle).

Sevenster, Maartje. 2018. Instant coffee is the better choice for your carbon footprint.