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Assessing Sustainability

Assessing Sustainability Image

Friday, July 15, 2011

Anna Canning, Special Correspondent

Is this the way that we’d want the world to be? We ask that question of ourselves a lot here at Peace Coffee. It gets phrased differently, but the sentiment dictates many of the business decisions that we make: Organic coffee? Yes, please. Bike delivery? Naturally. Caffeinating our local community at the amazing events that the Twin Cities hosts? As much as we can possibly fit into our schedule! Hours and weeks hunting down everything from mugs to t-shirts that are ethically produced as close to home as possible? Yup. Living wages and benefits? For everyone, please.

As part of our commitment to the value that is we sometimes summarize as "sustainability," we’ve long discussed collecting those choices that we make and understanding them as part of the larger picture of what we do. Our musings had the good fortune of encountering a willing muser, Emily Sames, a student at Macalester College, and she spent the fall semester looking at all aspects of our business from her vantage point as an environmental studies major. At every step as she gathered information, the very vastness of the attempt to map the environmental scope of each of our decisions became clear and so at each step, the process became two part: What about this aspect of our business can we accurately know? And what do we have the most ability to change or control?

With these questions narrowing her inquiries, Emily focused on a few key aspects of our business surrounding the production of coffee (an utterly comprehensive profile of what we do would have to examine the origins of everything we use and resell from tea to paper cups, to filters and office paper; we’re considering this a first step!): the inbound freight on the coffee, its roasting, packaging, and delivery, the building where we choose to do all that, and how our staff get about to do business. All the numbers cited are for the period from July 2009-June 2010. 

Once it lands in the U.S., the coffee that we buy comes through the port of New Jersey, each shipping container getting unpacked into the corner of the vast warehouse that we share with members of Cooperative Coffees (and umpteen other coffee importers). As needed, that coffee gets loaded onto semi-trucks to make the trek to us. In the 12 month period examined, 18 loads of coffee took the nearly 1200 mile road trip to our Minneapolis warehouse. While perfect world scenarios could imagine something besides a diesel semi-truck doing the hauling, some of the numbers on which we can have the most impact are the size of these loads. Just as it’s more efficient to combine multiple errands in a trip, it’s a better use of truck space to make the most of the available space on the trek across the country. On average, our loads were at 81% of capacity, leaving some room to pack in more coffee (the challenge there is for the roasting crew to balance the arrival of fresh lots of coffee and the concomitant unpredictability of international shipping with the need to have a steady supply of coffee to roast). Another aspect of transportation that fell outside the scope of this project, and our immediate control, is what happens to those trucks once they leave our dock -- do they travel empty from there back home, or are they backhauling another load and making the most of the trip?

All told, the roasting, packaging, and general warehousing of the coffee is the most energy-intensive part of our business; between the gas and electricity required, we use as much energy as 13 "average" U.S. households, according to the EPA (see more details). While the manufacturers of our big Diedrich roaster went to great lengths to build an efficient machine, the majority of that energy is still the gas used by the roasters. To be precise, it's actually the pollution control mechanisms in the roaster that use the majority of the gas and that's how the Diedrich, with its catalytic oxydizer technology that selectively incinerates the exhaust and by-products of roasting, is able to reduce emissions compared to other machines (in previous calculations outside of this study, we estimated that the Diedrich uses as much gas as our little Primo per batch, it just roasts about 2 1/2 times as much coffee in the process). None the less, the amount of gas that we use in the course of a year is staggering. A miniscule amount of that gas goes towards heating the warehouse (the roasters do a pretty good job of that), but, thanks to the geothermal heating system that takes care of the rest of the building, none is needed to heat our offices (for more on our lovely building: The electricity that is used to keep our production humming powers everything from the motors and fans on the roasters, the loading and packaging equipment, grinders, forklift, computers, lighting, and of course the fans that try to keep the humans in that big space somewhat comfortable.

Once roasted, the coffee is rushed straight into bags with one-way valves and sealed to keep oxygen out and all the aromatic nuances in. The bags? Plastic.* 12,505 lbs of it in the course of a year. The graphs below show how that weight of packaging compares to the volume of coffee -- no surprise, the smaller the package of coffee, the more plastic is used compared to beans. While just over half of our coffee goes out in clear 5 lb bags (relatively speaking, the most efficient form of our packaging), bags remain one of our biggest challenges as we demand a lot of them: they need to keep the coffee fresh (in technical terms, be "high barrier"), fit on a supermarket shelf, be shippable, and affordable (because, frankly, we'd rather have more of the coffee drinker's dollar go back to the people who grew the beans, not the packaging manufacturer). We haven't given up and continue to track innovations in coffee packaging, searching for a product that lives up to its claims, but for the moment, our packaging comes to 3% of the weight of the coffee we sell. Mad and benevolent scientists lend us (and the rest of the coffee industry) a hand!

Packaged up, the coffee's ready to leave the warehouse. The majority of our beans get packed up by our own delivery crew and lugged out the door by our four person delivery team (that means no additional packaging is needed). Our two full-time bikers lug nearly half of all the coffee we sell, trailer load by trailer load, collectively riding a grand total of 11,180 miles in a year. For context, that's about half the distance around the globe and, hazards of riding on water aside, would stretch to Sydney, Australia if they'd kept riding. The adjacent graph shows how the rest of those beans move as they head towards their final destination: a coffee mug.

Locally, our two biodiesel-powered vans travel approximately 28,000 miles in a year, ranging from Northfield up to Maple Grove around the metro area. The content of our local supply of biodiesel fluctuates throughout the year so assigning precise numbers to those miles in terms of emissions is a challenge based on current data, although it offers an area for further documentation.  Further afield, some of the coffee that gets boxed up and shipped via UPS stays right in Minnesota while some of it travels to points as far afield as Antarctica. While we know that most of our customers are in the upper Midwestern states of MN, WI, and IA, we don't have a comprehensive, accurate means of understanding precisely how many miles that coffee travels from our warehouse or in what sort of vehicle (another area for future potential investigation).  

Loyal local customers who stop by the roastery make up the remaining our sales volume. Our Department of Awesomeness loves to greet their (mostly) smiling faces, but we haven't quizzed them on how they arrive at our location or from what distance, so those numbers are also blank.

The final aspect of our operations that we examined was the travel that goes into supporting our business. Like our packaging, this is an area where two of our strongly held values come together: just as our insistence on fresh, high quality coffee leads us to the consumption of a lot of plastic, the way that we choose to do business with the farmers that we buy coffee from means that our staff racked up an impressive 89,403 miles of air travel in a year (that's more than 3 1/2 times around the equator).  Due to the limitations of the project, we shied away from converting various numbers into what's become one common denominator of environmental profiling, pounds of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emitted, however a few rough calculations show that this is indeed the third most resource intensive aspect of our business (after roasting and packaging coffee).  

A survey of our staff's travel habits closer to home revealed that in the course of a year, our crew racked up 11,506 miles biking to work and on other work errands, putting them just a fraction ahead of the delivery crew's bike miles for the same period. Coincidence, or the set up for a relay race? We haven't decided. In that same period, staff put on 17,021 miles onto their collective cars, a motley assortment of mileage that in retrospect would be more useful if it were broken down to differentiate between sales trips to visit our customers in Iowa, hauls to events, miles around town to fix that broken brewer, and commuter miles.

Not surprising for our generally thoughtful style, this exercise left us with more questions than conclusions. Having understood what our areas of greatest impact are, we're ready to begin the conversations about what we can do to improve our environmental profile and how to prioritize the work ahead of us.  Instead of a single number to summarize the results, consider perhaps this: despite the number of household's energy consumption that goes into our year's worth of roasting, despite the number of times we circumnavigate the globe in search of coffee, the largest part of the environmental profile of a cup of coffee comes from the decisions made by the coffee drinker.  

While we're considering where our studies lead us, here's how you can join us in making a greener, more sustainable coffee chain:

• Buy your beans in bulk where available! You'll help us use less of that plastic that's still stumping us.

• Use a real mug. Chose a ceramic mug when you're drinking "for here" and grab a travel mug when you're on the go.

• Compost your grounds if possible!

• Make only as much coffee as you need! If it's just you, maybe a single cup is perfect. Or brew up some Cold Press for coffee concentrate whenever you need it, hot or cold.

• Heat only the water you need -- no need to boil a full kettle for 8oz of coffee.

*To be precise, "plastic" in this case breaks down as follows:
One Pound bag: 48 ga PET/48 ga foil/.004 lldpe
Clear Five Pound bag: 48 ga PET/48 ga PVDC
Black Five Pound bag: 48 ga PET/48 ga foil/.004 lldpe
12 oz. bag: 48 ga PET/48 ga PVDC/.0003 lldpe

Key Terms
ga = gauge
PET = Polyethylene terephthalate (polyester)
lldpe = linear low density polyethylene
PVDC = Polyvinylidene chloride (saran)

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