Part I: Product Analysis
Team Members: Mihika Bansal, Amrita Khoshoo, Eliza Pratt, Ian Shei, Catherine Yochum
Coffee is an ancient commodity that ties together cultural histories across time and geography. Ancient legend holds that an Ethiopian goatherd first discovered the bean in 850 CE when he noticed his goats acting energetically after eating berries from a bush .
The goatherd took the berries to a nearby monk, who boiled them into a drink. Discovering the stimulating effects of the beverage, monks began consuming coffee as a way to endure long religious services . From these humble origins, coffee has since transformed into a major global product — the world drinks over 2.25 billion cups per day .
In our product analysis, we take a closer look at coffee’s present-day commodity chain, from production to consumption, and share insights that are informing how we might design a product that lasts.
Growing & Picking
Most coffee is grown near the equator, in areas that are tropical and have high biodiversity. The ideal conditions for coffee trees are moist, healthy soil, an adequate amount of sunshine, shaded canopy, and a certain amount of sunshine. Unfortunately, these conditions aren’t easy to maintain, so farmers will depend on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides to meet demand. Sun-grown coffee depletes the nutrients in the soil, making this method of cultivation only viable for 12–15 years, while shade-grown crops will last for 30 years. .
Once soil quality reduces enough to affect productivity, farmers will abandon those plots of land and clear new areas. Coffee trees take 3 to 5 years to bear fruit and workers typically harvest their crops by hand, at most, 2 times a year. Workers are paid depending on the quality and amount of harvest they are able to produce .
Around 200 million people depend on coffee for their economic survival, with large coffee farms only accounting for 20% of the coffee supply. Smallholder farmers produce 70–80% of the global coffee supply. These farmers are vulnerable due to shifting demands and have uneven purchasing power in relation to their intermediaries, who take the coffee cherries to processing plants .
Processing, Roasting, and Grinding the Beans
There are two methods of processing coffee cherries to remove everything but the bean (“skin, pulp, mucilage, and parchment”) .
In wet processing, the coffee is depulped, removing the fruit and skin, then soaked in water to remove mucilage and fermented for 18–24 hrs .
In dry processing, coffee cherries are dried outdoors for up to several weeks and then depulped in a machine .
While wet processing is a streamlined method, it can contaminate waterways. Additionally, working conditions in processing plants are harsh, with few basic labor rights .
This green (unroasted) coffee is given a grade before being transported to its final destination. It is roasted after transport for freshness’ sake, though not always immediately .
During roasting, heat browns the beans and induces flavor changes.
Roasters pay attention to many factors including roasting temperature, bean moisture, age, and roasting time in achieving a particular final roast .
The roasted beans are then either ground before packaging, or packaged whole.
The multilayer ground coffee bag that we’re familiar with today has evolved since 1720, when grounds were first packaged in beeswax-lined paper bags. Since then, the bag has evolved over different materials and packaging processes, but the objective has remained the same: to preserve the fresh flavor of the coffee by preventing outside air and other contaminants from entering .
The most prevalent form of this packaging is known as a fin seal side gusset pouch and is made from layers of laminated barrier film. Common lining materials include aluminum foil and metalized films on a polymer substrate. In either case, lining materials are likely to be bonded to other layers, such as polyethylene film, on which inks and labels can be applied, forming the outside of the bag .
A typical feature found on these bags is the one-way valve. A two- or three-part design of injection molded plastic , this valve allows the carbon dioxide from the coffee to exit the bag while preventing outside air from entering . This is crucial to preserving the freshest flavor.
Coffee packaging makes up 3% of the entire supply chain’s carbon footprint. Flexible packaging – such bags and pouches – use less raw material, have a lower carbon and water footprint, and result in less landfill waste compared to rigid solutions. However, fin seal side gusset pouch designs are rarely recyclable and require industrial facilities in order to separate individual materials for processing. More environmentally-friendly bags made in part from natural fibers are available and can be commercially composted at various degrees but are generally more expensive. Where facilities do not exist, environmental experts recommend recycling since improper composting can be harmful to the environment .
Consumption and Disposal
There are a plethora of methods to prepare coffee that vary in practice and complexity.
While in some cases the coffee product is consumed as part of the drink (such as Turkish coffee or instant coffee), it is most often separated by a filtering component that impacts the ritual of cleaning and disposal  .
Loose grounds on their own are entirely compostable. Some people will dump used grounds in their yard or save them as compost, where it is said to improve soil structure and provide a great nitrogen source for plants. Methods that produce loose grounds, such as french press or cold brew, require extra water-swishing or scraping methods to clean out excess grounds that stick to the brewing vessel after use .
Paper filters can be disposed of with loose grounds via compost or trash bin, allowing for easy cleanup. The long fibers provide fine filtration, preventing particles greater than 10–15 micrometers from passing through .
Mesh strainers sacrifice the finer filtering capabilities and convenience of paper filters for reusability. At a minimum, these strainers require a quick rinse after use, but they can also build up layers of fine coffee particles that prevent filtration. In these cases, baking soda, brushes, or other aggressive cleaning methods may be required to clear the mesh.
At each point in coffee’s journey from crop to cup, there are opportunities to design an intervention that helps the commodity and its packaging become a commodity that lasts. This brings us to our next phase, design.
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