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Coffee with a Conscience: 5 Ways to Make Break Time Greener

by Sarah McAdams

The average office worker in America uses about 500 disposable cups every year, according to the Clean Air Council. If 10 million of them used their own mugs, it would eliminate about 312,500 miles of trash every year. Launching a “green coffee” program at your company can be as simple as changing the cups you use. Here are some first steps.

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1. Buy coffee from sustainable sources
Many coffee vendors offer environmentally friendly options. Fair trade coffee has historically been more expensive, but coffee prices have dropped recently, and, as the Education Development Center learned, price is often negotiable. The nonprofit organization based in Boston negotiated an excellent price with food-services company Aramark for Fair Trade Organic Coffee produced by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, says Media Relations Manager Alison Cohen. “Not only do the coffee farmers get a fair price for their coffee, they also use environmentally friendly growing practices,” she says.

Mars Drinks also offers sustainable options: In 2008, the company announced that 20 percent of all its beverages would come from sustainable sources. Recently, three of Mars’ Flavia coffees (House Blend, Breakfast Blend, and Kona Blend) were granted Rainforest Alliance Certification, which means the coffee is grown on farms where forests are protected, rivers, soil, and wildlife are conserved, and workers are treated with respect, paid decent wages, properly equipped, and given access to education and medical care.

Mars also decreased the size of the packs that hold the coffee beans and tea leaves by 20 percent and created merchandisers (which display the packs in offices) from 90 percent postconsumer recycled content.

2. Get rid of the disposables
If you have a place to wash dishes, use reusable dishware. Either provide it yourself, or ask employees to bring in a few old dishes. Design consultant company Continuum did the latter. The result, says HR exec Gail Black Smith, is a significant reduction in the amount of waste the firm produces — but “it also leaves room for a touch of personal expression. Everyone has their own mug, or their favorite.”

PR firm MWW Group, meanwhile, provided all employees with coffee mugs — and replaced plastic utensils with silverware. Continuum went a couple of steps further, replacing paper towels with microfiber cloths and asking caterers to use reusable trays.

3. Grind your own coffee
Continuum recently began grinding coffee beans instead of buying ground coffee, which Smith says has multiple benefits: “It reduces packaging and costs, and tastes better!”

4. Don’t throw the grinds in the trash
At Burlington, Vermont-based Union Street Media, an employee collects coffee grinds to use in her garden as fertilizer. Spring is a great time to find workers at any organization who would like to do the same.

Businesses can lead by example if they have any indoor plants (coffee grounds can go in their pots). The Green Daily blog lists 21 ways to use old coffee grounds. Even employees who don’t have gardens can take the grounds home to do the following:

  • Deodorize the freezer (this can be done in the office, too). Place a bowl with used coffee grounds in the freezer to remove unwanted odors. Add a few drops of vanilla to the coffee grounds.
  • Soften and add shine to hair. When washing your hair, rub coffee grounds through wet hair and rinse. For brown hair, coffee grounds add highlights.
  • Rub coffee grounds on hands to get rid of smells from chopping or cutting up pungent foods.
  • Make a used coffee grounds sachet. Fill old nylons or cheescloth with dry used coffee grounds. Hang in closets to absorb odors.

5. Work with local coffee shops
GreenNonprofits, which helps organizations become more environmentally friendly, says many carry-out restaurants give discounts to customers who bring in mugs for a refill. “Arrange with the owners of your [employees’] most frequented carry-out to also give discounts if customers bring in a reusable container,” suggests CEO Ted Hart.