America loves coffee. Just think of how many Starbucks, Dunkin’, and other local cafes you see in your neighborhood. Now, think about how much coffee you or someone you know drinks. In 2020, 75% of Americans consumed coffee—and about 62% drink coffee every day. Now that’s a lot of coffee.
Many of us can’t start our day without a morning cup of joe. Others prefer to drink coffee casually, grabbing a fun, sweet flavor from a coffee chain once in a while. And because of this constant coffee consumption, many of us forget how wasteful or unsustainable our coffee-drinking habits can be.
Maybe you’ve traded dairy milk for plant-based milk. Or, you’ve started composting coffee grounds instead of tossing them out. But have you thought about how you’re brewing your coffee in the first place?
Unfortunately, not all coffee brewing methods are made equal. Whether you brew with a French press, traditional drip coffee maker, or use single-serve pods or steeped coffee bags, each method has a unique environmental impact.
So, what’s the environmental impact of your cup of joe? And which brewing method is best for the planet? Brightly found out, so you can brew the most sustainable cup of coffee possible.
The Brightly team compared five different methods of coffee brewing to see how they ranked in terms of sustainability.
Methods We Ranked:
- French Press
- Single-Serve Coffee Makers
- Stovetop Coffee Makers
- Steeped Coffee Bags
- Traditional Drip Coffee Makers
Each coffee brewing method received a rating out of 20 total points based on the ranking factors of waste, energy, longevity, and end of life. Each category is scored from 1 to 5, with 1 being the least eco-friendly and 5 being the most eco-friendly.
Popular Coffee Brewing Methods, Ranked
1. French Press
Total Score: 18/20
- Waste: 5/5
- Energy: 4/5
- Longevity: 5/5
- End of Life: 4/5
The French press is a fan-favorite method amongst zero-wasters, and for more reasons than one.
Traditional drip coffee makers run hot water through ground coffee. A French press, on the other hand, works a little differently: You add the coffee grounds, cover them with hot water, then—after the coffee is done brewing—slowly press down on the plunger to separate the coffee grounds from your drink.
In terms of waste, the French press makes virtually none—as long as you finish the entire cup of coffee and compost the coffee grounds. French presses also don’t require disposable coffee filters or single-use pods. Instead, they use a reusable mesh filter that can last for years with proper care.
The French press itself doesn’t require electricity, which is a plus in our book. However, to brew a hot cup of coffee, you need to use boiling water—and to boil water, you’ll need a kettle or pot. Instead of turning on the stove, use an electric kettle. It’s twice as energy-efficient as using the stove, averaging at around 1,200 watts. It also only takes about two minutes.
The French press is beloved by many on-the-go travelers who don’t always have access to a full kitchen. It’s easy to use and doesn’t require a lot of resources. Plus, it’s built to last: It’s durable and reusable, so you can use it over and over again for years to come.
A high-quality French press can last much longer than a typical coffee maker. But if you no longer want your French press, you can donate it. Or, if it’s past its prime, you can upcycle it into a terrarium.
2. Stovetop Coffee Makers
Total Score: 17/20
- Waste: 5/5
- Energy: 3/5
- Longevity: 5/5
- End of Life: 4/5
Stovetop coffee makers, like the moka pot, are an alternative to espresso machines for those who like their coffee strong. They come in different sizes, depending on how much coffee you’re looking to brew. They’re also fairly easy to use: simply fill with water and regular coffee grounds and let it brew on the stove.
Brewing coffee with a moka pot doesn’t create any waste as long as you compost the coffee grounds. These pots also don’t require a paper filter, as a metal filter is built into the machine. They’re also non-toxic, usually made from aluminum or a stainless steel percolator.
However, some energy is required for this brewing method. You’ll need a stovetop, which can either be gas or electric. Using a stovetop to boil water isn’t as energy-efficient as using an electric kettle. The amount of energy the stovetop uses depends on the type of stove you have.
Moka pots may also take more time to brew in comparison to boiling water in an electric kettle for your French press or steeped coffee bag. Why? Because not only does the water need to boil, but the pot also needs to percolate and brew the coffee. Even still, you’re only looking at a five-minute-long process.
Like French presses, stovetop coffee makers like the moka pot can last for more than 10 years as long as you purchase a high-quality option. Some people have the same one for life. If you no longer want your stovetop coffee maker, you can donate it or repurpose it to keep it out of landfills. People have transformed old moka pots into plant pots, lamps, and more.
3. Steeped Coffee Bags
Total Score: 15/20
- Waste: 5/5
- Energy: 4/5
- Longevity: 1/5
- End of Life: 5/5
No time for making traditional coffee? Steeped coffee bags are an up-and-coming method for brewing your morning cup of joe. Similar to tea bags, all you need to do is drop the coffee bag—which is filled with the perfect amount of coffee grounds—into your hot cup of water.
Steeped coffee bags are more sustainable than you may think—especially if the bag itself is made out of compostable, plant-based materials. Most steeped coffee bags feature a compostable filter made of non-GMO, renewable materials. However, shop smart: If the brand uses bags that include plastic or synthetic materials that can’t be composted, the option is no longer eco-friendly.
Steeped coffee bags also score high in the energy category because the bags themselves don’t require electricity. However, you do need hot water. Opt for an electric kettle to heat up your water over a stovetop kettle to reduce your impact.
While a steeped coffee bag can only be used once, it can be easily composted. There’s also not a coffee maker involved that has the possibility of being sent to a landfill. In addition, it’s a great way to avoid waste on the go, allowing you to avoid to-go coffee cups or K-Cups that can’t be recycled.
If you’re not sure where to find the most sustainable steeped coffee bags, the Brightly Brew Steeped Coffee Bags are single-serve and completely compostable. The coffee is also organic and Fair Trade certified.
4. Traditional Drip Coffee Makers
Total Score: 13/20
- Waste: 2/5
- Energy: 5/5
- Longevity: 3/5
- End of Life: 3/5
Traditional coffee makers seem to be old-school these days. They’re usually found in workplaces, and many of them can brew up to 12 cups of coffee in one pot. However, they’re not the most eco-friendly option on this list.
First of all, these mostly-plastic coffee makers require coffee filters, which are typically made of paper. While coffee filters and coffee grounds can be composted, depending on the type you buy, the norm is still tossing them in the trash. Looking for biodegradable and compostable filters, or opting for a reusable filter, can help eliminate waste.
In terms of energy, traditional coffee makers require electricity; these appliances have to be plugged in. With that being said, a typical drip coffee maker requires less energy to make coffee than any other option on this list—even less than using an electric kettle to boil water. Brewing up to 5 cups of coffee uses a little as 550 to 900 watts of power.
These coffee makers can also be reused over and over again and brew several servings of coffee at once. Hence why it’s often found in offices and other workplaces. And the lifespan of the traditional coffee maker can last anywhere from 3 to 10 years.
If you’re looking to get rid of your traditional coffee maker—and it’s still in good shape—the best option is to donate it. However, if it’s no longer usable, check with your local recycling facility for alternative options. If your local recycling facility can’t recycle it, research companies in your area that recycle small appliances.
5. Single-Serve Coffee Makers
Total Score: 8/20
- Waste: 1/5
- Energy: 1/5
- Longevity: 3/5
- End of Life: 3/5
At the bottom of our list might be one of the most popular coffee brewing methods: single-serve coffee makers that use plastic pods. Unfortunately, this convenient method for brewing coffee isn’t sustainable.
While some brands of coffee pods highlight the recycling symbol on the packaging, the reality is they can’t often be recycled. According to Keurig, 100% of K-Cup pods are recyclable: They’re made of mostly #5 plastic. But only about 3% of #5 plastics actually get recycled. In addition, K-Cups and other plastic pods are made up of multiple components—not just plastic.
According to our expert Rosie Briggs, the community education and engagement manager at Eco-Cycle, even if you did the tricky and time-consuming task of separating every K-Cup component—which includes a plastic cup, a filter, coffee grounds, and an aluminum foil top—the chances of it being recycled are still slim.
Unfortunately, many consumers don’t take apart K-Cups or other plastic pods before throwing them away, sending them straight to the landfill. In fact, about 39,000 capsules are produced worldwide every single minute. That adds up to a lot of unnecessary waste.
How about energy? To brew these pods, you need a coffee maker like a Keurig, a Nespresso, a Ninja, or a Hamilton Beach machine. These coffee machines plug into the wall and use quite a bit of energy to brew just one cup. Generally, single-serve coffee makers that use pods use up to 1,500 watts of power per cup of coffee.
If left plugged in after use, a Keurig is estimated to use about as much as the average lightbulb—60 watts of power. If you leave your machine plugged in at all times, you’re unknowingly using a significant amount of energy.
However, there are reusable single-serve pods, in which you fill with your desired coffee and reuse as you please. But most of the time, when we talk single-use pods, we’re talking about the ones that often end up in the trash.
Like traditional coffee makers, the machine itself can be used for years to come. However, if the machine breaks or you’re looking to make the switch to more sustainable options, it may be tricky to get rid of this small appliance. You’ll have to check with local facilities or contact the machine’s manufacturer to see if there are recycling programs available.
Considering how many pods are tossed in the garbage every year due to the popularity of these machines, it’s overall a very wasteful option. Opting for a different choice on this list can keep waste out of landfills.
While there are many ways to measure the sustainability of your coffee, including how the grounds were sourced, we dove into the most popular coffee brewing methods. By no surprise, the most sustainable options are the ones that don’t require a significant amount of energy and don’t generate a lot of waste.
If your coffee maker is still in perfectly good condition, use it until it’s no longer usable; the most sustainable option is typically what you already have. And take steps to make it more eco-friendly, like opting for reusable pods or compostable filters.
But if you’re in the market for a new coffee maker, this ranking will help you make the best choice for you and the planet.
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