Cultivating a circular economy in coffee

The necessity of becoming a circular economy is not lost on the coffee industry. However, the potential to reuse coffee pulp, organic waste from pruning and other field activities as well as wastewater from coffee processing is underestimated. Used appropriately, these wastes can enhance the productivity of coffee farms and livelihoods of farmers. By Anne-Marie Hardie

As we hone into the sustainability conversation, the coffee industry has recognised that achieving net-zero is no longer enough. We need to expand beyond the practices that will keep the coffee industry where it is today, but instead, look at the actions that will transform the industry tomorrow. The coffee industry needs to become a circular economy. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, based in Cowes, England, works to accelerate the transition to a circular economy by developing and promoting the idea and by collaborating with business, academia, policymakers, and institutions to mobilise systems solutions at scale, globally. It defines a circular economy as a system that stops waste from being produced in the first place. It requires the adoption of three practices: the elimination of waste and pollution, circulating products and materials (recycling, renewable resources), and regenerating nature.

“If we don’t reduce industrial energy consumption and industrial emissions, research shows we will only get a little more than halfway to net-zero by 2050, about 55 per cent of the way,” said Nabil Nasr, CEO, REMADE Institute, New York, New York. “A circular economy approach to how we manufacture and use everyday products can help us get all the way to net-zero.” Over the last five years, REMADE has fused on increasing the reuse, remanufacturing, recovery, and recycling of metals, plastics/polymer, fibres, and electronic waste.

The elimination of waste and pollutions

The global production of coffee currently creates a substantial amount of waste and pollution along the supply chain, from the pulp of the cascara hulls emitting carbon to the packaging overflowing the landfill.

“Buying behaviours have changed, and consumers expect more from their coffee. Coffee must be sustainable inside and out, starting with the way it is grown, sourced, staffed, manufactured, and more recently how it is packaged,” said Nerida Kelton, vice president, sustainability and save food, World Packaging Organization.

Renewable energy is an essential component of adopting a circular economy, however, a limited infrastructure is preventing this from occurring. For example, in the United States, only 17 percent of the electrical grid is renewable energy. Globally, this number is even more dismal, with only 11 percent of the world’s primary energy being renewable. Thankfully, positive shifts are occurring; in 2020, the renewable energy sector outpaced fossil fuels in the United Kingdom. Norway has the highest share of renewable energy in the world, and Brazil is a leader in biofuel and waste energy, accounting for 32 percent of their energy supply.

Coffee flowers can be used to make coffee tea. Image: Coffee Consulate

Since 2017 all of Dunstable, England-based Costa Coffee’s company-owned stores have been powered by renewable energy. Their roastery integrates renewable energy, including a 249kw solar PV system that provides power to the roaster, and an in-house, rainwater harvesting system. Today, the company is focused on further reducing its carbon footprint, including finding viable solutions for reusable coffee cups. This past November, the company changed their lining in their 95 percent wood fibre based takeaway cups to plant-based plastic, reducing the carbon footprint by an additional 26 percent.

Solutions, like the Bellwether Coffee zero-emission electric roaster, are helping provide cafes with a sustainable alternative to their traditional equipment. The electric roaster reduces the carbon footprint of the roast cycle by 87 percent. “We already see many coffee farmers creating circular economies within their own farming practices like using cascara to create compost,” said Grayson Caldwell, senior sustainability manager, Bellwether Coffee, Berkeley, California. “Coffee roasters have a responsibility to promote a circular economy as well.”

In December 2021, Bellwether Coffee announced its Roast Accelerator programme to help reduce the barriers to implementing a sustainable coffee roaster. The programme, which is currently available for marginalised San Francisco Bay area (Calif.) roasters, will provide a Bellwether roaster at zero upfront cost and a year of subsidised monthly roaster rent.

A broader approach to waste management

One of the challenges of developing a packaging design is ensuring that it is kept out of the landfill. Using recyclable or compostable materials is no longer enough; companies need to ensure that their products conform to the levies and regulations in the region. Alternatively, they can develop a closed-loop system that will help ensure that the packaging is repurposed.

The most well-known coffee by-product is cascara, the dried cherries from which the coffee beans have been removed. Image: Coffee Consulate

Single serve has long been a target for sustainability, which has resulted in several companies creating solutions that are either compostable or recyclable. One brand that has done precisely that is Nespresso. Lausanne, Switzerland-based Nespresso has developed regional partnerships to ensure its aluminium-based pods stay out of landfills. Currently, there are 100,000 Nespresso collection points spanning across fifty countries.

Developing these types of closed loop collection programmes will help ensure that the packaging is repurposed instead of placed in the landfill. Recently, Nespresso partnered with CurbCycle and iQ Recycle to trial a new programme in the Mosman, Newcastle and Willoughby regions in Australia. “The new Curby program sends residents in a trial region bright orange Curby bags, which are filled with the aluminium capsules and then placed into the regular recycling bin,” said Kelton. “The bags are then separated at the Materials Recovery Facility and sent to Nespresso to recycle.”

The most well-known coffee by-product is cascara, the dried cherries from which the coffee beans have been removed.

Cafes Novell, Barcelona, Spain, has also implemented several initiatives to contribute to the circular economy, including zero-waste packaging, partnering with Nespresso in its recyclable single serve programme, and committing to responsible sourcing. “Cafes Novell didn’t want to offer packaging that didn’t marry up with their sustainable goals,” said Kelton. “They identified the issue of capsules heading to the landfill and designed a compostable barrier for their pods and a recyclable carton board in 2019.” Cafes Novell’s most recent partnership is with Tree-Nation, Barcelona, Spain, where the company has committed to planting a tree in one of several reforestation projects with every purchase.

The use of mono-materials helps improve the overall recycling and composting rate of packaging, however, creating this for coffee has been a challenge. This is because coffee packaging needs to preserve the product, while also creating a barrier for gas and vapour.

Cyclpac, Melbourne, Australia, the 2022 WorldStar Packaging Award winner, addressed these challenges when they designed a recyclable, sustainable mono-material solution for coffee that offers barriers to oxygen and vapour. “Cyclpac have developed a packaging solution that could change traditional approaches in the coffee industry for good, replacing ‘mixed’ laminate packaging materials,” said Kelton. “The packaging is 90 percent LDPE [low-density polyethylene], has a technical barrier to gas and vapour, a mono structure lamination, BOPE [a transformative technology that enables the manufacture of all-polyethylene], seven-layer high barrier co-extrusion [an extrusion process used to obtain a product that combines two textures] with EVOH [ethylene vinyl alcohol], reverse or surface printed.” The material used is recyclable and compliant with the Australasian Recycling Labelling Program and the On-Pack Recycling Label in the United Kingdom.

Circulating products and materials at their highest value

One of the fundamental principles of a circular economy is the elimination of finite resources by either keeping existing products and materials in use or repurposing the raw materials into other formats.

Packaging is not the only by-product created by the industry, one of the largest sources of waste is the coffee grounds. To address this issue, cafés are creating programmes to divert this waste source, including internal composting programmes and repurposing the grounds into other materials.

“Coffee grounds have traditionally been seen as a ‘waste’ material. But now we can recycle these into sustainable composites for plastics (in fixtures like signage or countertops), or indeed into a natural flavour ingredient for foods and beverages,” said Jessica Folkerts, head of marketing, bio-bean Limited, Huntingdon, UK. For this upcycling to happen, bio-bean requires a clean supply stream of spent grounds. “Behaviour change is key here; whether it’s in the sourcing of more sustainable materials and ingredients or the ‘waste’ segregation and disposal of the by-products, it’s down to human behaviour to truly make a change.”

The Curby trial programme in Australia sends residents special bags for Nespresso aluminium capsules that can then be placed in regular bins.

Bio-bean, whose purpose is to create impactful, lasting change by innovating through coffee waste, recycles spent coffee grounds from businesses across the UK into a variety of sustainable bio-products. Their latest product, Inficaf, which launched this past July, has a range of applications, from plastics to automotive friction and cosmetics. A couple of the projects that Inficaf has been used in, include creating wall art in McDonald’s net-zero restaurant and a partnership with businesses in plastics compounding and moulding to create a reusable coffee cup.

In June 2021, Costa Coffee extended its partnership with bio-bean, which began in 2016, for an additional two years. Approximately 1500 Costa Coffee stores segregate their spent coffee grounds and send them to the bio-bean recycling facility.

Regenerating nature

In a circular economy, the focus expands beyond yield to look at regeneration, including protecting the local ecosystem through biodiversity and seeing soil as a living organism. “In agriculture, to create a circular economy you need to recognise the complexity and realise it’s different in every country,” said Andrea Illy, chairman, Illycaffè, SpA, Trieste, Italy.

Image: International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment (2021)

One of the challenges of integrating regenerative agriculture at the farm level, is developing a model that is truly scalable. To further understand this form of agriculture, Illycaffè is applying the principles of regenerative agriculture to two zero-emission plantations, one at the Jardines de Babilonia in Guatemala and the second at Kokkere which is in Ethiopia’s Ormia region. This includes planting trees, enriching the soil with organic matter to boost carbon efficiency, and boosting the biodiversity of the region to restore the ecosystem’s balance. Illy’s goal is to be able to turn these projects into scalable models. Illycaffè’s objective is to become carbon-free by 2033, which requires shifting its agriculture practices from ‘emitter’ to ‘sequestrator’.

Several key players in the industry including, Nestlé, Starbucks, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, and Unilever, have made substantial commitments to achieving net zero and investing in regenerative agriculture. Actions include detailed origin assessments, increasing biodiversity, a commitment to agroforestry and reducing carbon emissions.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation emphasised that the circular economy is a system solution framework. For coffee, this involves looking at the entire supply chain and implementing solutions that are focused on regeneration, instead of extraction. It is a complex shift with many moving parts, however, the path towards a circular economy in coffee is slowly being paved.

  • Anne-Marie Hardie is a freelance writer, professor and speaker based in Barrie, Ontario. She may be reached at: [email protected].

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