Composting Coffee

Composting is for everyone,” reads the website for Austin, Texas-based Compost Coalition, a two-year-old grassroots organization that works with area businesses and residents to divert organic materials from landfills. Thanks to the Coalition’s Ground to Ground program, more than eight tons of coffee grounds are diverted from the region’s landfills each month. Instead of contributing to greenhouse gases by releasing methane into the atmosphere, grounds collected from local businesses get a second life in the soil of urban gardens, where they contribute vital micronutrients and a slow release of nitrogen to hungry plant life.

The coalition’s colorful home page outlines a variety of refuse eligible for the compost heap: yard waste, kitchen scraps, a carpenter’s wood shavings, a brewer’s spent grains and, yes, a café’s nitrogen-rich espresso grounds. Under the Ground to Ground tab, the site reads: “Take all you can carry!” and, below, an Upcoming Events box promotes a local Funky Chicken Coop Tour. The overall message? Reuse is fun—a positive outlook that is changing the way Austin looks at trash.

Heather-Nicole Hoffman, a founding member of Compost Coalition, saw a need for a better composting program in Austin when she noticed that local grocery stores had contracted compost removal but smaller businesses were rarely able to afford the same. “It made me think, what about all these little places that cant afford composting services? They’re on such tight profit lines that they really can’t afford one more thing,” says Hoffman, who has a degree in environmental science.

Ground to Ground greenFrom that realization a volunteer network was created, and Compost Coalition’s advocacy efforts grew. Ground to Ground came about a year later, but through door-to-door campaigns, marketing and outreach at local gardening events, the word quickly spread. Soon the initiative was receiving requests from local cafés, restaurants and even corporate breakrooms with coffee grounds to spare. As more businesses signed up to have their coffee grounds picked up by Ground to Ground volunteers or “coffee captains,” a collaboration with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service boosted awareness of the program across the state.

Today more than 20 local businesses are composting through the program, a number that is steadily growing. “It’s just kicking into high gear,” says Daphne Richards, a horticultural agent for AgriLife Extension Service. “We have a great website … and it seems like every day I get a call from someone wanting to know how they can participate.” Compost Coalition’s user-friendly site also offers advice for residents on how to produce less waste, what to compost (“if it grows, it goes”), and a map of the city’s community gardens, recycling centers and Ground to Ground participants. “Everyone who has participated has been very pleased,” says Hoffman of Ground to Ground. “It’s been pretty easy and goes fairly smoothly.”

Simplicity was key to getting the program on its feet: While some coffee shops re-bag grounds in coffee bean packaging, for most of the program’s participants a bucket exchange keeps things hassle-free.

Four-gallon buckets donated by a local penitentiary are stamped with the Ground to Ground seal, filled by baristas and other foodservice workerCompostCoalitions, set by the door and taken home by local gardeners. “When people come in, even if they haven’t participated before, they can just take home a bucket, use the grounds either on their gardens, compost or on the lawn, and return the buckets and do it again.” says Hoffman. Extension agent Richards says the program sees “citizens who don’t even garden, but they’ll pick up the grounds and deliver them to their neighborhood community garden.” Because the grounds provide nutrients many commercial fertilizers lack, the relationship is win-win. “Coffee grounds are slightly acidic,” says Richards, “so in areas with alkaline soil, like Austin, coffee grounds help to lower the soil pH just a bit.”

Composting is still relatively new to Austin, and the city’s recently enacted Universal Recycling Ordinance—which requires all foodservice businesses to compost by 2016 (2017 for larger businesses)—means major changes for some. But Hoffman hopes Ground to Ground will ease that transition and inspire the community to embrace reuse. “This program is a really easy way for people to get used to the idea, both on the business side and the consumer side,” she says. “Coffee grounds are really easy—the most they’ll do is mold a little. They’re not going to get terribly gross, so it’s a good introduction.”

Ground to Ground isn’t the first program of its kind, or even by that name; the founders of Austin’s Ground to Ground were inspired by a different Ground to Ground program in Melbourne, Australia. The founder of that program, Shane Genziuk, permitted Austin’s Ground to Ground to continue using the name and his logo (a plant sprouting from a portafilter full of espresso). Meanwhile, coffee composting efforts are growing in cities across the country: in Eugene, Oregon, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Santa Barbara, California, to name a few. Richards says the potential for composting programs like Ground to Ground is tremendous, and she hopes Austin can be a guide. “There are gardeners in every neighborhood, in every city of the world,” she says. “We’d love to see Ground to Ground spread to other communities, and we’ll help with that any way we can.”