Upcycling: An effective way for coffee roasters to reduce waste

Janice Kanniah
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December 6, 2023
Infusion Coffee and Tea Crafters, upcycling, upcycling coffee waste, custom coffee bags, custom printed coffee bags

The specialty coffee supply chain generates a fair amount of waste, as several studies have shown. Therefore, each contact point should be doing what it can to mitigate its waste production. An effective way to do this is through upcycling.

Coffee farmers often manage the waste generated as a byproduct of coffee production and processing. Further down the line, coffee roasters must deal with packaging, roasting, and post-consumption-related waste–something that increases in volume as a business scales up.

Adopting a circular economy approach can help coffee roasters who want to operate more sustainably and reduce their environmental impact. In simple terms, this will require them to keep resources in use for as long as possible to extract the maximum value. This, in turn, reduces their waste production.

To find out how coffee roasters can upcycle waste as they operate and grow, I spoke to Patrick O’Malley, the owner of Infusion Coffee and Tea Crafters, a wholesale distribution chain with five cafés. 

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What is upcycling and why apply it to coffee waste?

Upcycling is turning waste into a new item. Essentially, it is the opposite of downcycling, which refers to separating waste for recycling or finding individual, lower-quality components that can be reused in separate projects.

It’s a relatively new term, having only been around for a few decades. However, its practices have been in place for a long time. For example, producers have long retained coffee cherries for making cascara. Additionally, they’ve used coffee leaves to produce tea

Notably, it’s estimated that over half of a coffee cherry’s volume is disposed of during processing.

When it comes to the other end of the supply chain, coffee roasters also deal with waste in the form of used grounds, and coffee husks or chaff. It’s estimated that roasting a tonne of coffee results in half a tonne of coffee husks being produced.

Even more waste is generated once the coffee is brewed. Research shows that about 70% of the grounds are left behind for disposal after consumption. 

Initially, Patrick would send his coffee waste to landfills or customer gardens. However, as he began to scale up his business, he ran out of space to store the chaff. As it is lighter than the coffee grounds, it took up more space. 

The brand then sought a partner willing to take this waste on and use it for another purpose. While he admits that it’s challenging to do and that there isn’t always the time or labour available, Patrick says the reward is “knowing we are trying to make a difference in our city.”

Infusion Coffee and Tea Crafters, upcycling, upcycling coffee waste, custom coffee bags, custom printed coffee bags

Upcycling in action: How is it done? 

Patrick is also the owner of the International Barista and Coffee Academy (IBCA), which has locations in the US and Dubai. In addition to repurposing chaff, his cafés have found alternative uses for other forms of waste they would typically dispose of. 

“In 2016 we partnered with a local farmer who runs a chicken farm for the organic production of eggs,” Patrick explains. “I asked if he would consider experimenting with chaff to see if his chickens would prefer it in their coops, which usually are padded with sawdust.

“He reported back that the chickens didn’t like the way it stuck to their feet. So, I suggested combining the chaff with spent grounds from our cold brew production and using it as compost.” This arrangement went on for several years and saw the farmer collecting a 500-gallon barrel of grounds and chaff weekly from the cafés. 

Once the partnership ended, the cafés transitioned to using the compost in their gardens. Beyond this, the cafés offer it to customers and a local college’s culinary department. Patrick explains that today, the café “collects cupping water and grounds from daily quality control processes and uses it in the garden.”

Typically, coffee roasters receive green coffee in large jute bags. These are often disposed of because of the sheer volume being received with each green coffee purchase. Patrick explains that initially, each month, the café would place a pile of empty bags at the entrance for customers to take, but this wasn’t enough. “Now, we also give our used jute bags to a local zoo for storing feed or to fill with straw and give to the animals to play with,” he says.  

Patrick adds that he also uses GrainPro bags as garbage can liners. While they aren’t suitable for collecting liquid waste, they’ve decreased the volume of trash bags the café purchases.

Infusion Coffee and Tea Crafters, upcycling, upcycling coffee waste, custom coffee bags, custom printed coffee bags

Upcycing coffee bags: Typical challenges 

Repurposing waste wasn’t an effortless endeavour for Patrick, and he certainly experienced some challenges. “The biggest issue is finding people that can collect and use the spent grounds from our cold brew production or chaff. We’re constantly on the lookout for new partners for us to pick up our product and put it to good use.” 

Patrick wants to find partners “to make other products and keep them out of our landfills, as well as to find innovative and creative ways to upcycle it.” 

“It isn’t easy to find partners who are willing and able to take the time, energy and effort to collect and use the grounds, chaff and bags,” Patrick admits. “So, keep a creative, open mind. Don’t get distracted and don’t give up.” 

Another example of innovative upcycling is the initiative from Artisan Roast Chile. The brands’ organic waste is collected by a push-bike courier and made to create marketable products such as body scrubs and hand soaps – all of which come in sustainable packaging. The roastery also offers various seed bombs using organic coffee waste to help provide nutrients to grow herbs and flowers in customers’ gardens.

Additionally,  Foreword Coffee in Singapore collaborates with a startup that collects the brand’s used plastic milk bottles as part of its R&D process. The startup then uses this waste to create functional products. 

In 2022, Foreword Coffee diverted over 4,000 plastic milk bottles and caps from their waste stream. This amounts to more than 800 kg of plastic waste saved. By combining its plastic waste with abandoned logs, the brand has created stunning furniture for the café. “Our customers love our furniture, which is made from upcycled plastic waste. Many customers come in and take pretty Instagram photos with our coffee tables,” explains director and co-founder, Lim Wei Jie

Managing your cafés waste can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. The process will require careful planning and can take time, but is worth it. If you’re concerned about the footprint of your coffee packaging, MTPak Coffee is happy to assist you. 

Contact us today to find out how

Images courtesy of Infusion Coffee and Tea Crafters.

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