How can specialty coffee roasters promote a circular economy?

TJ Grant
June 8, 2021
sustainable coffee bags

According to estimates, global coffee production generates more than 20 million tonnes of waste annually, from the pulp of processed cherries to wet coffee grounds and takeaway cups.

While some of this waste is recycled, the vast majority ends up going to landfill or finding its way into rivers and oceans. Not only does this have an impact on the environment, it also means that raw materials are continuously required to create new products.

Roasting coffee creates a significant amount of waste, from chaff to packaging. However, as concerns over sustainability in the coffee supply chain grow, more and more specialty roasters have started exploring ways in which to promote a circular economy by recycling, reusing, and reducing the waste they produce.

To find out more about promoting a circular economy in roasting, I spoke with 2019 German Barista Champion and Head Roaster at Röststätte, Nicole Battefeld.

See also: What Is The Carbon Footprint Of A Cup Of Coffee?

circular economy

What is a circular economy?

Put simply, a circular economy is a model in which resources are kept in use for as long as possible. Unlike a linear economy where products are made, used, and disposed of, a circular economy is a “closed loop” system designed to minimise waste, drive greater resource productivity, and lower the environmental impact of both production and consumption.

Although the concept dates back to the 1970s, it’s largely thanks to the more recent efforts of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) that the idea of a circular economy has gained traction around the world.

According to the foundation, a circular economy is an economy that’s “restorative and regenerative by design”, and aims to move away from the traditional concept of “take-make-waste”, which is putting strain on the environment and the planet’s natural resources.

It states that the way to achieve a circular economy is by looking at how resources are managed, how products are made and reused, and how the materials are handled afterwards.

Nicole Battefeld has worked in the specialty coffee industry for more than half a decade, most recently as Head Roaster at Röststätte in Berlin. She tells me that in their work roasters have a responsibility to promote a circular economy.

“Roasters are in a position where they need to show that change can be made through small actions,” she says. “It’s their responsibility to work on environmentally friendly business practices to influence the mindset of the end consumer towards a more sustainable lifestyle.”

coffee cherries (cascara)

Waste at origin: What can roasters do?

During 2020, over 129 million bags of coffee were produced globally, leading to vast amounts of byproducts. Among them is the skin and fruit of coffee cherries after the beans (or seeds) have been removed for processing.

A common practice for producers is to dry the skins of coffee cherries to make cascara, a herbal tea made from coffee husk. The dried skins can be purchased by roasters and steeped to make the sweet and fruity drink that can then be sold in shops.

While many coffee farmers in countries like Ethiopia and Yemen have been brewing cascara for centuries, the concept is relatively new to consuming countries, which may be a reason for recent import bans to the EU.

“Cascara was banned from EU trading due to a lack of research on the product and guidelines of transport,” Nicole explains. However, despite the embargo, there are other ways in which farmers can utilise waste from coffee production.

“Mosto is the juice you can extract from the cherry, which can be used to ferment your coffees,” she says. “A great example is the Santuario Project by Camilo Merizalde. He made a black lime honey process.

“As a roaster, it would be a great way to encourage producing countries to incorporate these techniques to push their coffee quality and promote a circular economy.”

nicole battefeld

Recycling chaff and used coffee grounds 

For roasteries and cafés, two of the main sources of waste are chaff and used coffee grounds, respectively. Chaff is the dried skin of a coffee bean that falls off during roasting, while used coffee grounds are wet grounds as a result of brewing.

When chaff and used coffee grounds are disposed of along with general waste, they end up going to landfill where they release methane during decomposition. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas (GHG) thought to be 80 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

For every tonne of coffee waste, an estimated 340m³ of methane is emitted into the atmosphere. Therefore, it’s crucial for both roasters and café owners to take concrete measures to reduce the amount of chaff and used coffee grounds that go to landfill.

Nicole explains how roasters can partner with local businesses to ensure the waste produced in their roasteries can be reused.  

“At Röststätte, we work with local garden centres that pick up grounds and chaff to reuse as fertiliser,” she says. ““There are mushroom farms that use coffee waste for fertiliser, too.”

In 2019, Ford Motor Company partnered with McDonald’s to collect around 700,000kg of chaff from their roasting facilities. The roasting byproduct was used to create car parts, such as headlamp components which are typically made with plastic, thus reducing the production of virgin materials.

sustainable coffee packaging

How does sustainable packaging contribute to a circular economy?

Product packaging is the chief cause of waste across a number of industries. According to studies, up to a fifth of the UK’s waste (the equivalent of five million tonnes annually) is made up of packaging.

One of the reasons for this is the prevalence of single-use plastic over sustainable alternatives. Cheap, reliable, and easy to produce, plastic has long been a favourite material for packaging everything from food to medical equipment.

But as concerns over low plastic recycling rates and the impact its disposal has on the environment, governments have increasingly imposed bans on single-use plastics altogether. Around 170 countries have already pledged to significantly reduce their use of plastics by 2030.

Nicole tells me that while she recognises the positive effect these measures have, more needs to be done by individuals in the coffee industry to reduce the number of amount of single-use packaging in circulation.

“In many countries, we’re already seeing governments stepping in to ban single-use plastic packaging,” she says. “These actions have great impact, but are usually put in place years too late. We have a responsibility to work sustainably, which is why biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable packaging materials are a necessity for roasters.”

However, switching to sustainable packaging materials, such as kraft paper or polylactic acid (PLA) is only one step towards creating a circular economy. To ensure the maximum sustainable value proposition, roasters also need to include information on how to correctly dispose of the packaging once it’s empty.

This could be in the form of sustainability certifications, written instructions, or even scannable QR codes.

“There’s a lot to communicate,” Nicole says. “But at the very least, roasters should incorporate information on how to recycle or compost the packaging into the bag’s design so the customer can conveniently read the instructions.”

recyclable coffee packaging

Every actor in the coffee supply chain must work together to minimise waste, and ensure products are kept in continuous use. If not, a circular economy can never be truly achieved.

At MTPak Coffee, we value the principles of a circular economy. Our “Go Green” recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable packaging is certified sustainable.

For more information on our sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team.

MTPak Coffee

Photo credits: Laura Drosse/@elle_pilou, @collectionsfromhim

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