Gallons of water for some coffee?

When a friend informed me last month that the well-known Starbucks Coffee chain was wasting millions of gallons of water a day, it came as a big shock. Surely, the coffee chain which claims to embrace green principles by requesting customers to bring their own tumblers instead of consuming paper cups could not commit such a gaffe, I thought. Besides, drinking water does not come cheap in countries such as Singapore and Australia, I reasoned. How naïve I was.

Starbucks uses basins called dipper wells with constant running water to wash spoons and utensils. British tabloid The Sun which broke the story last month revealed that a tap is left running all the time behind the service counter to flow into the dipper well. This, according to Starbucks, enables water to rinse away food residues and prevent bacterial growth.

Not only in Australia and Singapore but in all its 10,000 outlets around the world (one report says 16,548 stores according to the company’s last financial statement), Starbucks follows the same standard wasteful practice. This means that about 23.4 million litres of fresh water are allowed to go waste everyday, which is said to be enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every 83 minutes. It is also enough to supply the daily water needs of an entire nation such as Namibia.

Some other coffee chains such as Spinelli and Coffee Bean are also using the same practice.

Though Starbucks is defending this practice on health grounds, even the health experts are astonished.  Just running water is not enough to remove bacteria; soap and water have to be used. In any case, it is perfectly possible to disinfect without using so much water. Dishwashers were invented long ago.

As it is, coffee cultivation requires enormous amounts of water. The water footprint of one cup of coffee is said to be about 140 litres of water, which is the water needed for growing and processing coffee. This is quite a high figure when compared with tea which has a water footprint of 30 litres per cup and beer which requires 75 litres per glass.

The Starbucks story is only touching a tiny tip of the proverbial iceberg. The wasteful use of water in agriculture is only too well-known. Colossal amounts of water are being wasted by industries and commercial establishments especially in the developing world. Many of the world’s famous resorts are located in water-scarce regions. The higher the star rating of a hotel, the higher is its water consumption.

Coming to industries such as thermal power generation which are terrible water-guzzlers in the developing world; for every 1000kWh of power generated, India uses 80 to 100 m3 of water as against just 10 m3 in the developed world.  

George Carlin said: “The planet will be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas. A surface nuisance.”

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