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Wednesday 22 February 2017

Environmental scientist Dr Laurie Wright muses over his morning coffee, and what it tells us about the circular economy

I’m often guilty of stopping for a take-out coffee on my way to work. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it makes mornings a little more bearable. The next stop for my convenience: the bin. Yet that’s only part of the story; the production of coffee takes a supply chain that stretches around the world.

Coffee is far more than a beverage. The humble brown bean is firmly placed as the world’s second largest trading commodity behind crude oil, while modern artisan cafes, the so-called ‘third-wave’ producers and retailers, have positioned coffee as an artisanal foodstuff, much like wine or cheese, rather than just a commodity.

My cup of single origin Costa Rican, with its hints of plum and bitter dark chocolate, has been on a journey taking it from the fields of South America to my disposable cup. The used cup and the old coffee grinds go on another journey, to be processed and disposed.

With technology has come efficiency, bringing economic growth, social prosperity and, above all else, convenience. We extract resources, make goods, and dump them when we’re done; take-make-dispose. Our environment has paid the price.

Should I just stop buying take-away coffee, then? If I forgo my morning coffee that means reduced income for the local retailer and the producer. If we all stop, they go out of business, coffee sales fall and the economy shrinks – perhaps not the most desirable outcome. So, what’s the solution?

That’s the kind of question that drives my research. The impact of my coffee habit – or of any product – goes beyond the point of consumption. We need to examine the life-cycles of our products, evaluating the environmental, social and economic consequences of extraction, manufacturing, use, and disposal.

This is where the concept of a circular economy comes in; an economy where there is no such thing as waste but we still benefit from convenience and productivity.

In a circular economy, each time we are finished with a product it becomes the input for another, new product. The waste grinds from my coffee can become fuel or compost; the cup could be reprocessed. By understanding life-cycles, we can understand how the sustainability of production process and supply chains can be improved.

And if we can achieve this across our economy, we can fundamentally rethink how we view resources – designing strategies to reduce resource use and improve overall sustainability.

One of those strategies may well need to focus on education – of both corporations and customers. After all, a more durable, reusable cup may well be better… but if coffee chains perceive it as an added cost, or it’s not convenient to bring it along with me, the cup is just another form of waste.