Beyond takeaway coffee cups: How brands are reducing waste

Tori Taylor
September 11, 2023
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Sustainability is a pressing issue at every level of the coffee supply chain. While many initiatives focus on reducing the environmental impact of coffee production, the volume of waste produced by cafes and roasteries, such as takeaway coffee cups, is also a significant concern for many.

Experts estimate that the coffee supply chain generates over 23 million tons of waste annually, from green bean processing through to roasting and packaging. Beyond this, an independent cafe can sell between 200 and 300 cups of coffee per day. A large chain coffee shop can sell an astounding 700 cups of coffee per day, according to the National Coffee Association (NCA).

Obviously, single-use cups are a significant contributor to the current waste crisis, but what about the beans and water used in the brewing process? For specialty coffee brands, reducing waste not only ensures more efficient use of coffee beans but also helps lower costs and promote respect for the people behind its production.

I spoke to several specialty coffee roasters and cafe owners about how they reduce waste in their business, and how others can do the same.

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Understanding waste in the specialty coffee sector

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 many of the by-products 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 a percentage of waste which includes the emissions and exhaust fumes produced from roasting equipment. Beyond this, there is a collection of silverskins that come off the beans when they’re roasted.

Silverskins, or chaff, are a protective layer of skin found on coffee beans that comes off during roasting. As it is generally quite light and fluffy, chaff tends to stick to the inside of roasters and must be regularly cleaned to avoid risk of fire. Many modern roasters feature a chaff bucket, where the majority of these dried skins collect.

Another main source of waste for coffee brands is single-use plastics, such as takeaway coffee cups, lids, and packaging. In a roaster, many coffee pouches are used during tasting and experimenting. Once used, these coffee bags 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.

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How are coffee businesses reducing waste?

As sustainability becomes essential across several industries, specialty coffee roasters and cafes are striving to contribute to a circular economy. This includes looking at ways to reduce organic waste or transform it into a valuable resource.

For example, chaff can be repurposed as animal bedding and compost. 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.

“Sustainability is in our mission statement and we take it seriously,” explains Jacie Nicolle, owner of Smokestack Roasters LLC in the US. “We spend a lot of time training our staff on the environmental impact of coffee, so they can help educate customers and we can work together at reducing waste.”

Smokestack Roasters donates all its coffee and food waste to local gardeners and farmers. The chaff is repurposed into compost, while food scraps are used to feed livestock. “We also incentivise customers to bring their own containers, whether it be for coffee beans or a takeaway beverage,” Jacie adds.  This initiative has helped the brand save an estimated 1,200 single-use cups from landfill this year alone.

Beyond this, the brand uses compostable takeaway coffee cups and flat bottom pouches made from kraft paper. Excess takeaway packaging, such as paper carrier bags and coffee cup carrier trays, are made optional instead of being offered to customers automatically. This has helped the brand reduce unnecessary waste reaching landfills.

Some companies are taking it a step further: a Colombian building firm has combined chaff with recycled plastics to create building materials for prefabricated homes. Beyond this, McDonald’s has partnered with Ford Motors to repurpose chaff to make headlamps, interiors, and other components for cars.

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How to become a zero waste coffee brand

Sean Lee, the president of Seven Coffee Roasters in the US, explains the brand wanted to be a zero waste café from the start. “To call ourselves ‘zero waste’ we have to ensure at least 90% of our waste doesn’t end up in the landfill. We took 6 weeks to quantify, measure, and adjust our waste. In our first week of measuring (November 18th-24th, 2019), just 1.98% of our waste went to the landfill.”

He adds the other 98.01% was diverted for reuse, donation, composted or recycled. Beyond this, the brands’ takeaway coffee cups, coffee bags, and takeout containers are fully compostable.

“Seven Coffee Roasters is also proud to be an EnviroStar,” Sean says. “EnviroStars is a one-stop shop for Washington-based businesses to access environmental assistance and gain recognition for being green. The programme allows businesses to receive free technical assistance, connect with rebates and resources, and follow a clear path to sustainability.” Recognised businesses are listed in a ‘Green Business Directory’, allowing them to communicate their environmental commitment to customers, employees, and the community.

As concerns over the environmental impact of the coffee supply chain increase, several brands are aiming for a zero waste business model. While it may not be possible to reduce waste completely, working towards it will have a range of benefits for businesses and the long-term future of the coffee industry.

At MTPak Coffee, we can help coffee brands reduce their packaging and single-use cup waste. We offer a line of sustainable takeaway coffee cups made from renewable materials such as recycled kraft paper with an environmentally-friendly PLA lining.

Strong and lightweight, our range of cups is the ideal choice for roasters and coffee shops looking to reduce the impact on the environment and communicate their commitment towards sustainability. Our range includes double or single wall cups, compostable takeaway coffee cups, as well as coffee cup sleeves. 

Our recyclable takeaway coffee cups are available in five different sizes: 4 oz, 8 oz, 16 oz, 12 oz, 22 oz, and 24 oz. 

We can also guarantee that all our paper-based coffee packaging, including our kraft paper bags, are from forests that have been certified by the FSC. Our fully kraft paper coffee bags can be fitted with degassing valves, additional layers, and resealable zippers to preserve freshness.

Article body images by Smokestack Roasters LLC and Seven Coffee Roasters.

For more information on minimal waste coffee packaging options, contact our team.

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