In the world of specialty coffee, it’s not unusual to see customers taking great pains to minimize the impact of their coffee habit: toting reusable cups, opting for electronic receipts, supporting direct-trade farming. But even a ceramic mug full of directly-traded coffee might still neglect a major aspect of production—coffee waste.
All along the supply chain, much of the original coffee cherry is wasted. According to research from Almacafe in Colombia, after processing, only 6 percent of the original cherry is left in a cup of coffee.
Whether it’s at the source of production, or at the end of the supply chain at the brew bar, coffee waste poses a significant problem, from water pollution caused by untreated coffee waste from the production process, to the release of millions of tons of methane emissions from coffee grounds sent to the landfill. For example, in wet processing of coffee beans, 1,000 kilograms of fresh berry results in about 400 kilograms of wet waste pulp. If that waste pulp isn’t properly disposed of, it easily ends up in the surrounding water sources and results in pollution.
As global awareness of the significant cost of food waste grows, the coffee industry has also taken note. Innovative companies are working hard to tackle waste all across the supply chain, with many of those efforts focused on finding ways to use excess coffee fruit.
Waste is simply resources in the wrong place.
Dealing with coffee waste resulting from the processing of the coffee cherry is not a new problem, as Dan Belliveau, the CEO and founder of CoffeeFlour, points out. “Coffee waste is actually something that has been on coffee growers’ minds for as long as coffee has been commercialized,” Belliveau says. “The coffee cherry waste stream has historically been something that ‘had to be dealt with,’ as it takes a significant amount of property to store coffee cherry pulp throughout harvest time and then requires extra labor to dispose of the pulp after harvest.”
CoffeeFlour launched in 2015, tackling coffee cherry waste by converting it to flour. Cherry pulp is converted into a gluten-free flour, with a flavor reminiscent of roasted fruits.
To date, the company has converted between five and six million pounds of coffee cherry pulp into CoffeeFlour, and the company aims to be able to convert pulp into more than three billion pounds of flour, keeping the pulp from the waste stream. Not only will this continue to create a new product— a “found food” as Belliveau calls it—but also generate an additional revenue source for farmers. “We hope to share the technology in the future, as our goal is waste reduction and the improvement of farmers’ lives,” says Belliveau. If successful, the project has the potential to convert between five and six billion pounds of coffee pulp annually.
CoffeeFlour’s core goals—reducing waste and improving the lives of farmers—are central to the discussion of coffee production’s economic ramifications. James Hoffmann, of Square Mile Coffee Roasters, echoes these sentiments. “We need to find new revenue streams for farmers, we need to reduce waste wherever we can, because doing nothing has seen climate change accelerate in a devastating and horrifying way,” Hoffmann says. “Ultimately, it’s also good business.”
Earlier in 2016 at the London Coffee Festival, Hoffmann showcased a variety of products at the Square Mile Coffee Roasters’ pop up. One of them was chocolate made with cascara, the dried skins of coffee cherries. Hoffmann sees cascara, a byproduct of coffee production, as having ample potential, in not only using a waste product but creating new culinary concoctions full of flavor. “I think there are tons of possibilities. I believe it could be added into all sorts of things as a component, rather than the main flavor pillar you’d build a product around,” Hoffmann says. “I think it could make great ice cream or sorbet, great kombucha or kefir, great cocktails or soda.”
The diverse potentials of coffee waste point to one crucial consideration: we need to think differently about it, not as waste, but as potential. “Waste is simply resources in the wrong place,” says Daniel Crockett, head of communications at UK-based Bio-Bean. Bio-Bean works on the consumer side of the coffee supply chain, and is the first company to industrialize the process of recycling waste coffee grounds into biofuels.
“Bio-Bean is a pioneer in the circular economy, turning waste into resources and the challenges of urbanization into great opportunities,” says Crockett. That’s a larger business trend that Crockett sees taking place, in coffee and other industries. “Increasingly, businesses recognize the impact of adopting circular economy thinking, not just on the environment but on their bottom line,” he says.
Converting coffee grounds to biofuels on an industrial scale has led Bio-Bean to develop a wide array of partnerships—from airports to train stations, to hospitals—all looking to use biofuels within their businesses. They also provide services to companies within the coffee industry, collecting used coffee grounds from cafés. Sometimes it even comes full circle, like with 918 Coffee Co., which provides spent coffee grounds to Bio-Bean and in turn, fuels their roaster with the resulting Bio-Bean fuel.
The diverse potentials of coffee waste point to one crucial consideration: we need to think differently about it, not as waste, but as potential.
Not only can grounds be used for fuel, they also have applications in construction, as shown through research by Australian engineer Arul Arulrajah, who has been researching the potential of using coffee grounds to pave roads. One project used a combination of 70 percent dried coffee grounds and 30 percent slag (a waste product from steel manufacturing); the mixture was bound together with a liquid alkaline solution, then compressed into cylindrical blocks. The resulting material was tested and proven to be strong enough to be used as a road substrate, as documented in Arulrajah’s study, published this year in Construction and Building Materials.
When composted, coffee becomes an incredible organic resource high in phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, and nitrogen, the last of which is an important nutrient for plants. The rich nutrition supplied by composted coffee has led to initiatives like Ground to Ground in Austin, Texas, and Melbourne’s Reground. Both projects work to source used coffee grounds from cafés and compost them. This recovery process saves the coffee grounds from landfills.
Besides being used in compost, coffee grounds can also be used to directly grow food, namely mushrooms. Eric Jong co-founded GroCycle, a company that harvests unused nutrients from coffee fruit waste. Jong explains that only a very small percentage of the original coffee biomass makes it into the consumed beverage, leaving the remainder of the fruit packed with potential. “Think about it—it’s a bean that needs to kickstart the growth of a whole new tree,” Jong says. “The mycelium feasts on these nutrients and the result is lovely abundant mushrooms instead of more waste.”
Jong and his partner Adam Sayner converted an unused office building into an urban mushroom farm in Exeter in southwest England. “We have an aim of spreading this wonderful concept to cities far and wide,” Jong says. “The idea is being picked up all over the world now which is great to see. We have trained hundreds of people from every continent and some have gone on to set up farms of their own. There should be at least one in every city on the planet.”
GroCycle, much like all of these businesses that see a potential for a product most others think of as waste, is not only doing business differently, but rethinking their entire business model. “An enormous part of our current economy is based on take, make, and then discard model,” Jong says. “We are inspired by the concept of the circular economy where, by design and thought, you produce no waste. Initiatives like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Gunter Pauli’s Blue Economy are leading the way in making these concepts mainstream.”
In San Diego, California, a screenprinting studio developed an innovative approach to spent coffee grounds: using them to make ink. “This stuff has a lot of pigment, and it has the ability to stain fabric, [we thought] how far can we take that?” says Alex White of Domestic Stencilworks. He and his team use the ink to print on both paper and fabric.
White also sees the benefit of thinking about a waste product in a new way. “We love sustainability,” White says, “but we also think it’s just a great way to run your business, using something that people throw away. The idea of reusing something is brilliant to me, because there’s so much waste.” Partnering with local cafés to source grounds (all within walking distance of their studio), the company even prints café t-shirts, made with the recovered coffee grounds from the respective café.
We are inspired by the concept of the circular economy where, by design and thought, you produce no waste.
From White’s perspective, StencilWorks isn’t just producing a hip garment—they’re rethinking how to approach resources. “I was raised by my grandma, she was Depression era . . . it was just what you did, you reused stuff,” White says. For him, working with a waste product is taking a step back. “It’s about being resourceful and using what’s around you before you go out and buy new stuff.” One gallon of spent coffee grounds, easily produced in a day at a café, is enough to print fifty t-shirts.
Keeping a few gallons of coffee grounds out of the waste stream might not be a huge number, particularly considering the large amount of coffee grounds produced on a daily basis, but ultimately, White, like all of his counterparts working to rethink waste products, is considering the broader picture.
All of these businesses directly impact the waste stream, but more importantly, they impact our overall culture of business. As they inspire other companies to turn waste into profit, to diversify revenue streams for farmers and producers, to rethink how we use resources, and to consider waste materials instead of virgin ones, we can hope to see a business culture focused on more than just “take, make, discard.”
—Anna Brones is a freelance writer and the author of Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break.