GCR linkedin Logo

UTZ Certified is coding the world’s most precious resource

From the February 2015 issue.

Utz Certified has introduced new wastewater reporting requirements for its farmers. Mira-Bai Simon tells GCR Magazine why this is just a small step towards correcting a major environmental problem

For consumers, the most evident ecological damage is typically what they see at their doorsteps.

Many consumers were up in arms when they saw how much waste they were producing in throwing out their single serve capsules everyday. Recyclable and biodegradable coffee capsules have since helped consumers alleviate their guilt of a convenient daily brew.

A life cycle analysis by Switzerland-based Empa Research Roland Hischier, released in 2011, was a sober reminder of consumers’ shortsightedness. In the analysis, Hischier found that packaging was among the more innocent sinners in the coffee supply chain. The environmental damage done at origin was by far the biggest disturber in the eco-balance of any cup of coffee. In the worst instances, Hischier found that the growing and processing of coffee at origin represented around 70 per cent of the environmental damage caused by a cup of coffee.

And much of this damage is being done to the world’s most precious resource: water. On the other side of the world from where most coffee is consumed, the environmental effects of coffee production is a frightening concept to consider. Mira-Bai Simon, Global Media Relations Officer for UTZ Certified, explains that it takes around one cubic metre of water for each metric tonne of coffee produced.

This means that a small coffee producing country that grows around 1.5 million 60-kilogram bags – roughly Costa Rica’s current production – produces wastewater equivalent to 36 olympic pools. This is in addition to 16,000 metric tones of organic waste, and 2780 metric tonnes of methane. This equals the amount of carbon dioxide produced by 20,000 cars a year.

“Coffee wastewater is a big issue because it especially affects people living in agricultural areas as 95 per cent of rural households rely on groundwater for drinking water,” says Simon.

When farmers de-pulp their coffee and remove the parchment mucilage, an organic matter sits in the wastewater. The pollution value can exceed chemical oxygen demand (COD) of 50,000 milligrams per litre. COD is a measure of essentially how contaminated a unit of water is. To put this figure into perspective, in Switzerland water can’t be released into the environment until COD levels are under 1000 milligrams per litre.

Simon says that in Latin America, most of this wastewater is being released into rivers untreated. This is a scary practice in a region that produces around 70 per cent of the world’s coffee, and is home to 31 per cent of the world’s freshwater resources.

“Local ecosystems do not have the capacity to clean large amounts of contaminated fluids just naturally,” says Simon. “When coffee wastewater is released untreated into the ecosystem, it disturbs rivers, aquifers, aquatic fauna and flora as well as downstream communities who depend on the rivers’ water flows for their subsistence.” 

Consumers aren’t alone in ignoring these issues. Simon says the coffee industry at large is a long way from taking this environmental damage into account.

“Commodities such as coffee don’t include the environmental costs,” says Simon. “We don’t even know what the true price of coffee or cocoa is out there. The price of coffee is dependent on supply and demand, and of course speculation.”

Hischier’s lifecycle analysis had some positive outcomes. He found that consumers who are concerned about environmental damage do have some power over the supply chain. The damage to the ecological balance can drop to just 1 per cent among coffee that’s sustainably produced.

UTZ is taking a lead in this space, following a three-year pilot project looking at the treatment of wastewater at origin. GCR Magazine first reported on the launch of the project in 2012 to trial using bio-digesters, or anaerobic reactors, to generate biogas from coffee wastewater. The systems have the dual advantage of treating wastewater while producing biogas. This biogas can then be used to fuel stoves or even to run coffee mills in larger operations. 

“The project was set up to learn about, and with these insights contribute to solving, a global challenge,” says Simon. 

Two and a half years later, Simon says UTZ has gained a lot of knowledge that will help further define the strategy in combating climate change, and water pollution specifically. Firstly, the wastewater treatment systems were a success. Among the smaller wet mills, they were able to reduce overall water usage by 60 – 70 per cent, using just 18.2 litres per kilogram of coffee. These mills were able to safely dispose of 89 per cent of their contaminated water. The systems also provided enough gas to power a stove for four to five months. This meant the communities could use less firewood, enough to save 20 full-sized Guava trees.

Among the larger mills, they reduced water usage by 40 – 50 per cent, using just 7.4 litres of water per kilogram of coffee. Similarly, around 89 per cent of wastewater was safely disposed off, and they could use the biogas to power the mill and heat the treatment system.

Simon says that UTZ constantly seeks to fine-tune and sharpen its systems by adjusting requirements and guidance. In this respect UTZ has taken lessons from the project and added new requirements in its Code of Conduct to even better address the issue. At the simplest level, Simon says the first step for farmers is just to measure and be aware of how much water they are using.

“You need to start with very basic elements that they can apply themselves,” she says. “The first thing they can do is to ask themselves: ‘How much water do I use in the wet mill?’ From that initial analysis farmers are able to make a plan on how to mitigate the situation in order to achieve a positive impact on the environment.”

Although the impressive results make the bio-digesters very promising, Simon admits that putting these systems at mills around the world requires commitment and effort from the entire coffee sector. These specific pilots were installed thanks to support from the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs.

UTZ has now secured enough funds to introduce this technology in a collaborative effort in Guatemala, Peru and Brazil. By having the coffee sector commit to these projects and secure funds from a wide range of stakeholders, Simon says UTZ is able to scale up the initiative, further spreading its positive impacts. 

“The technology applied by UTZ to set up this project is easy to maintain, as well as the maintenance costs.. It is a challenge to keep this topic on the agenda as many coffee farmers face a wide set of priorities and challenges,” says Simon.

Consumers and the industry at large are starting to see the need to look beyond their doorsteps at the true environmental footprint of coffee.

Simon says that the application of the UTZ Certified Code of Conduct and crop relevant programs is a sound way to ensure better farming systems that are able to cope with climate change and reduce emissions at the same time.

“UTZ’s commitment to addressing climate change in agriculture is demonstrated by piloting and implementing innovative technologies such as this coffee wastewater to energy project,” she says.  “UTZ is committed to future successful innovations with committed partners in other countries and regions, and to develop and implement further systems that will support farmers in coping with climate change.” GCR

© Copyright 2020 Prime Creative Media Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.

ABN: 51 127 239 212

X