When talking about sustainability, the word “zero” appears a lot – zero plastics, zero emissions, zero net carbon. Often used by politicians, CEOs, and industry leaders, it demonstrates a commitment to the true essence of sustainability: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
In the coffee industry, achieving a “zero waste roastery” has become one of the top priorities for specialty roasters. The day-to-day running of a roastery produces a considerable amount of waste, from CO2 to chaff, which can have a detrimental impact on the environment.
As a result, many roasters have set themselves the target of becoming a zero waste roastery by reducing and repurposing the byproducts of their craft. Not only will this help improve the sustainability of the supply chain, it also promotes a circular economy and caters to the demands of increasingly eco-conscious consumers.
To find out more about achieving a zero waste roastery, I spoke with 2018 German Barista Champion and sustainability advocate, Nicole Battefeld.
Where does coffee waste come from?
The journey of a coffee from seed to cup generates a considerable amount of waste, from the wet pulp of processing to the used grounds after extraction.
While significant efforts have been made in recent years to repurpose a lot of the byproducts of production, such as the sale of cascara for tea, each cup of coffee continues to leave behind a trail of waste. It’s estimated that the UK alone produces some 500,000 tonnes of used coffee ground waste per year.
Roasting coffee also produces its fair share of waste. Nicole Battefeld is Head of Quality Control at Röststätte, a roastery in Berlin, and tells me that the worst offenders are silverskins and exhaust emissions.
“In my experience, the main sources of waste in coffee roasting are the silverskins that come off beans when they’re roasted, and the emissions and exhaust fumes produced from the roasting machines themselves.”
Silverskins (or chaff) are a protective layer of skin found on coffee beans that comes off during roasting. Due to its light and fluffy characteristics, it readily sticks to the inside of roasters and must be regularly cleaned to avoid risk of fire. Most modern roasters also have a chaff bucket, where the majority of the dried skins collect.
In addition to chaff and exhaust fumes, the other main source of waste in a roastery is single-use plastics. As Nicole highlights, roasting requires a lot of trial and error, particularly when it comes to storage and packaging.
During this process, a lot of pouches, which never leave the roastery, are used for tasting and experimenting. Once used, these pouches are often discarded and inevitably end up going to landfill. While incineration has the potential to reduce the mass and volume of packaging by up to 75%, it can be costly and can release pollutants into the atmosphere.
Tackling waste in the roastery
While waste management during the harvesting and processing of coffee may be out of a roaster’s control, there are a number of measures they can take to reduce the waste involved in roasting.
For example, chaff can be repurposed in a number of ways, including as compost and as animal bedding. Thanks to its high carbon and nitrogen content, it offers an ideal source of nutrients and can help to speed up the breakdown of other household waste. Because it can be easily collected during roasting, roasteries can pack it into bags and send it off at minimal personal cost.
Yet some companies are thinking even bigger. One building firm in Colombia has started combining chaff with recycled plastic to create materials for building prefabricated homes, while McDonald’s has partnered with Ford Motors to repurpose chaff to make headlamps, interiors, and underhood components for cars.
A number of roasters are also finding creative ways to reuse jute bags. Jute bags (or burlap sacks) are woven bags made from jute plants used to transport green coffee between origins and roasteries. Thanks to their strength and breathability, they prevent the buildup of condensation during long journeys and reduce the risk of mould.
Often colourfully decorated and exotic-looking, these jute bags are being increasingly offered by specialty roasters as decorative items for consumers. For example, Rave Coffee sell their used jute bags for £3, marketing them as “all-purpose”, whether it be for garden waste, decoration, or craft.
Overcoming the plastic problem
Once coffee has been roasted and distributed, some suggest that it is still the responsibility of the roaster to ensure their packaging is properly disposed of.
Nicole tells me that first and foremost, roasters should make sure their coffee pouches are either recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable.
“There are many types of packaging that roasters can choose from,” she says. “The most common are plastic bags with foil interiors and plastic valves, which often can’t be recycled. Waste can be reduced by choosing recyclable or biodegradable options, and educating customers on ways to recycle materials.”
Educating customers could involve a number of strategies, including sustainability certifications, short instructions, or scannable QR codes.
However, roasters should also recognise that sustainable packaging often requires commercial treatment, which isn’t always available. For example, separating multilayer packaging is a complex process that not all recycling facilities have the equipment to deal with.
Where this is the case, Nicole suggests adopting an exchange system in which people can return their packaging or have it refilled with coffee.
“Some roasters might not approve of such systems because it poses a risk to quality, but in the interest of more sustainable enterprise such options should be explored and adopted,” she says. “My workplace uses one size bag for both 250g and 500g retail options, and we fill it to order. By doing this, we minimise the variety of bags that need to be printed and ordered. It means we’re improving our workflow and reducing the production of unnecessary waste.”
As concerns over the environmental impact of the coffee supply chain have grown, many specialty roasters have made achieving a zero waste roastery their number one priority. While it may not be possible to reduce waste completely, working towards it will have a range of benefits for both your business and the long-term future of the coffee industry.
At MTPak Coffee, we can help you lower your carbon footprint and promote a circular economy with our selection of sustainable coffee packaging solutions. On our biodegradable, recyclable, and compostable pouches, we can print your custom designs using water-based inks, helping create a fully sustainable product for your customers.
For more information on our sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team here
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