Zero Waste Coffee: How to Brew Sustainably

Written by • Last Updated April 20, 2021

Most of us need coffee to get through the day. Do mornings even exist before coffee? But whether you’re a homebrew master or a breakroom coffee drinker, we need to talk about how to incorporate zero waste coffee into our lifestyle.

Before I dove into zero waste living, my coffee brewing routine started with a K-cup machine. Realizing how awful those single-serving pods were for the environment, I switched to a traditional filter drip machine and a conical burr to grind my beans at home.

At that point, I didn’t think coffee brewing could be any more eco-friendly. But oh, how wrong I was!

You see, those iconic paper coffee filters aren’t safe from plastic. Some disposable coffee filters contain polypropylene to keep them from tearing.

Plus, I was tossing the used filters and grounds right into the trash. Composting them–or even reusing the grounds–never crossed my mind.

And when I wasn’t brewing my own coffee at home, I was ordering it from my favorite cafes. Unfortunately, those paper to-go cups were hiding a dirty little secret: a thin plastic lining that isn’t compost-friendly.

I’ve since come a long way with my eco-friendly coffee routine–as well as zero waste tea! Once you learn how to brew and source sustainable zero waste coffee, you can enjoy your daily caffeine fix without plastic filters and linings.

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How to brew zero waste coffee

Glass zero waste coffee pot with paper filter sitting on grey kitchen counter.

There are several easy methods to brew zero waste coffee without sacrificing flavor.

Cold Brew

If you want low maintenance, dead simple zero waste coffee, this is the method for you.

When the cold brew craze first hit, I brushed it off as a hipster trend. Little did I know that cold brew coffee is a genius invention for people with busy schedules and no desire for fancy brewing equipment.

This is everything you need to make cold brew coffee:

  • coarse coffee grounds
  • a glass jar
  • a reusable filter
  • water

I use a ratio of 1:8 coffee to water. But you can also make a cold brew concentrate using a 1:4 or 1:3 coffee to water ratio. The concentrate works well if you like to add ice to your cup and sip it throughout the day.

Simply add your grounds to the jar, pour in the water, and let it steep for at least 12 hours. I like to make it the morning before so I have a full 24 hours of brew time.

Once it’s brewed, you can use a pour over filter to strain out the grounds.

If you’re like me and don’t want the extra step of straining out the grounds, buy yourself a cold brew kit!

These kits come with a stainless steel filter that submerges the grounds in the water. After you’ve let the coffee steep, just pull out the filter and dump the grounds into your compost bin (or save them for a DIY project).

Glass or Ceramic Coffee Dripper

If you only drink one cup of coffee at a time, I highly recommend investing in a glass or ceramic coffee dripper.

The preparation is incredibly simple. Just place the plastic free coffee maker over your cup of choice, line it with a reusable fabric filter, add the ground coffee beans, and then pour over boiling water.

This method is great because it allows you full control over the strength and temperature, and works for one cup or a whole coffee pot!

French Press

A French Press is one of the most popular ways to brew zero waste coffee because it’s easy and flavorful. Simply add ground coffee, pour in boiling water, wait up to ten minutes (I normally give it around five) for it to brew, and then press down to filter. Voila!

Make sure you get one that’s made of sustainable materials, such as stainless steel and glass, and not aluminium.

Turkish Coffee Pot

I am a recent convert to Turkish coffee. It tastes amazing, I don’t have to drink as much to get a caffeine buzz, and it’s easy to prepare. If you prefer a stronger, more concentrated beverage, give Turkish coffee a go.

Plus, the pot itself (also known a a “cezve”) is both eco-friendly and attractive. Turkish coffee pots are traditionally made of tin and copper and have no internal mechanisms that can break, so they’re incredibly durable.

They’re quite similar to a Western-style stovetop espresso maker, which is another great zero waste coffee maker option.

To brew the coffee, you pack in a few spoonfuls of fine grounds, pour in the water and just let it brew on the stove. Then, just pour in a cup, and add in milk or sweeteners as needed. Absolutely no filters necessary, and you can easily compost or reuse the dregs afterwards.

I recommend this lead-free tin-lined one, which looks just like the ones you’ll find all over Turkey and the Balkans.

Coffee Grinder (Conical Burr)

Finding zero waste coffee grounds can be challenging depending on where you live. Because coffee beans quickly lose their flavor after grinding, coffee grounds are often sold in non-biodegradable packaging.

Investing in a conical burr to grind fresh beans makes plastic-free coffee brewing much easier. Simply buy your eco-friendly coffee beans of choice (more on that below), pour some into the grinder, choose how fine or coarse to grind the beans, and start it up!

I use this one by Capresso. It’s super powerful and easy to clean.

Save me for later!

How to source sustainable coffee beans

It’s all well and good to brew zero waste coffee, but what about the beans?

Coffee production accounts for a large portion of deforestation, and with the demand for it showing no sign of slowing down, this will only get worse if we don’t source responsibly.

So, what do you need to consider when buying coffee beans?

Most eco-conscious coffee drinkers already know to look for fair trade and organic brands. This guarantees there are no pesky pesticides anywhere near your coffee, and that everyone involved in the production was paid fairly and not exploited.

But something you might not be aware of is to only buy coffee beans that are shade-grown. 

There are two types of coffee plants: sun-grown and shade-grown. Although the sun-grown ones have been bioengineered to produce three times as many coffee beans as shade-grown plants, they also contribute nearly double to deforestation rates. So, when you buy coffee, it is important to ensure that the company only uses shade-grown coffee beans.

If you’re wondering where to start looking for shade-grown beans, I recommend Tiny Footprint Cafe. They are the creators of the world’s first “carbon negative coffee” and one of the rare companies that use biodegradable bags for their beans!

Some other shade-grown, sustainably sourced companies include Mayorga and Kicking Horse Coffee. However, these companies don’t use biodegradable packaging, so they aren’t 100% zero waste.

And of course, if you have a local shop that sells sustainable coffee in bulk, that’s even better! Most shops with bulk bins will let you bring your own cloth bag, which you can empty into your vacuum-sealed, stainless steel canister to preserve their freshness!

RELATED: 17 Best Sustainable Kitchen Products to Buy

Zero waste coffee on the go

Woman holding zero waste coffee cup and pink bag filled with produce in front of white wall.

Did you know that over 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed every single day around the world? While not all of these coffees are coming in plastic cups, Starbucks has stated that they accounted for approximately 4 billion disposable coffee cups globally in 2017.

As I mentioned before, the vast majority of paper coffee cups have a thin plastic coating. While these have their benefits–they’ll keep your drinks warmer for longer and aren’t as hot to hold–they are terrible for the environment.

That’s why my first zero waste swap was a reusable coffee mug–this glass and silicone one is my favorite.

Most coffee shops are happy to pour your drink into a reusable cup. In fact, they’ll often give you a 5-15 cent discount! Just let them know the size in ounces and they’ll charge you accordingly.

Here are some other tips for low waste coffee on the go:

  • Skip the straw that comes with iced drinks (or bring your own reusable one)
  • Ask the barista to add sugar directly into your drink instead of using the packets
  • If you forgot your reusable cup (or the shop won’t allow it), avoid using the plastic lid if it’s safe

How to dispose of zero waste coffee

Approximately 500,000 tons of wet coffee grounds are thrown into landfills every year. The problem? They sit there releasing methane indefinitely. Methane is over 28x stronger than carbon dioxide, making it one of the largest contributors to climate change. 

This means that ditching your coffee grounds in the trash or down the drain is a nightmare for the planet, and isn’t exactly zero waste coffee. Luckily there is a simple solution: composting. 

There are numerous options from your own backyard to local collections depending on where you live. If you have a lot of house plants, coffee grounds are a great fertilizer.

And if you’re crafty, used coffee grounds are an excellent all-natural addition to soaps, body scrubs, and hair products. Creating a circular economy is the goal of zero waste, after all.

Looking for more zero waste tips? Check out these posts:

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