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Recycling Coffee Waste

Coffee is more popular than ever before, with 95 million cups of coffee drunk in the UK and around 2 billion cups consumed worldwide every day. Have you ever thought about where the coffee that you drink comes from? Or what happens to the used or ‘spent’ coffee grounds when they’ve been used to make your flat white?
Coffee beans
© University of York/BioYorkshire

Coffee is more popular than ever before, with 95 million cups of coffee drunk in the UK and around 2 billion cups consumed worldwide every day. Have you ever thought about where the coffee that you drink comes from? Or what happens to the used or ‘spent’ coffee grounds when they’ve been used to make your flat white?

Coffee Production

There are over 120 species of the plant Coffea, some of which produce seeds called coffee beans. The most popular species is Coffea arabica, from which 60-80% of the world’s coffee is produced. Coffee plants are evergreen shrubs, which produce fragrant white flowers, followed by 1.5cm oval berries which ripen from green to yellow, then turn crimson and black when they dry. Optimal conditions for growing coffee plants are cool to warm tropical climates and the so-called ‘bean belt’ runs along the equator, with Brazil the world’s largest coffee producing country.

Coffee and The Environment

In order to speed up the ripening process, many coffee farmers changed their method of coffee production from “shade grown” (where shrubs were planted within the shade of trees) to growing coffee plants in full sun. Unfortunately, the clearing of land needed for full sun has resulted in loss of habitats for animals and insects and soil and water degradation. The process of growing coffee is water intensive, with an average of 140 litres of water used to grow the beans to produce one cup of coffee.

Processing Coffee

Once the berries are ready for harvesting, they are sorted, the flesh is removed and the seeds are fermented to remove a gluey substance called mucilage from their surface. The seeds are then washed with fresh water and then dried. After further sorting, the beans are then roasted, graded according to their colour and are ready to be sold as whole beans, or processed further to become the ground and instant coffee products that are available all over the world.

Coffee Waste

When we think about all the resources that have been used to create our morning coffee, it seems a shame that after pouring hot water over our coffee grounds for a few moments is usually the limit of our interactions with this material. We might have a compost heap in the garden and be able to use our spent coffee grounds to make compost, or mulch. Or our local council might offer food waste collection. Or they might end up being sent for incineration or sent to landfill where they will emit methane – a greenhouse gas that is causing global warming. Fortunately, there are lots of people out there who have ideas for creating value from coffee waste.

Reusable Cups

Kaffeeform has developed a reusable cup made from recycled coffee grounds. Coffee grounds are collected, dried and mixed with biopolymers, starch, cellulose, wood, natural resins, waxes and oils. The resulting composite material is durable, light, with a smell of coffee and the look of dark wood.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Fuel from Coffee Waste

Bio-bean are a London-based company working to transform coffee waste into valuable products at an industrial scale. They offer a coffee collection service for businesses, reducing disposal costs and diverting waste from landfill. Opportunities they have identified include transforming dried spent grounds into automotive parts, tableware and sunglasses, extracts that can be used for flavour and fragrance in food and beverages and cosmetics to solid biofuel coffee logs that can be used to provide sustainable energy.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Cosmetics From Coffee Waste

As well as using coffee extracts in cosmetics, several companies sell products that use coffee grounds for their exfoliant properties as an alternative to plastic microbeads. You can even make your own, here is just one recipe and if you’re feeling really adventurous, why not have a go at making your own phone case out of coffee grounds.

Coffee Clothes

One company is even turning spent coffee grounds into something you can wear! Sundried clothing process coffee grounds in a low-temperature, high-pressured environment to create a yarn which is used to create a range of activewear. They claim that the resulting fabric controls odour, wicks sweat, is naturally antibacterial and dries over 200 times faster than cotton. If you don’t fancy coffee clothing, what about some sunglasses from spent grounds?

What do you think of these innovations? Would you consider purchasing any of these products?

© University of York/BioYorkshire
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