The Circular Life of Coffee

using ground coffee waste to make coffee leather, coffee cups & even biofuels

To make a cup of coffee only 0.2% of the coffee bean is used and the remaining 99.8% goes to waste.

And when we consider that the average German consumes around 6.5kgs of coffee beans yearly, that’s a lot of waste.

This is also where the lifecycle usually ends – beans are harvested, roasted, ground, and the coffee is made. The waste is disposed of and ends in the landfill where it emits methane, a harmful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Not sustainable.

But what if there’s another way?

The circular economy is all about designing processes and products to eliminate waste and enable the continual use of resources. Waste and pollution are largely a result of how we design things.

This also applies to the coffee industry. Extending the lifecycle of coffee beans, and coffee as a material will make the whole industry more sustainable.

People have already figured out how to make all sorts of things from ground coffee beans: furniture, fabrics & clothes, lamps, printing ink, and even biofuels (coffee has 18% oils, meaning there is an energy potential in coffee).

bio-bean – making biofuels from recycled coffee grounds

bio-bean is a UK based company that uses coffee grounds before they end up in landfill to create products that can be re-used. They worked on a project with Shell for example, where they extracted 6,000 litres of coffee oil from waste coffee grounds, which was used to help power some of London’s buses.

The process happens at a factory where waste coffee grounds are sifted and dried before a process of evaporation extracts the coffee oil from the grounds.

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bio-bean also produces coffee logs, which can be used for burning in domestic wood burners. Each log contains the grounds from around 25 cups of coffee which are collected from businesses across the UK.

With their products, bio-bean wants to get the world to think differently about waste. By promoting valuable uses of waste coffee they hope to encourage others to reconsider what could be achieved with substances we currently consider “waste”.

Reusable cups made from ground coffee beans by Kaffeeform

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We love this startup from Berlin.

They are all about mixing design and sustainability and are implementing this so well. Their product range currently consists of cups that are made from leftover coffee grounds and other renewable resources. They make every kind of cup – from takeaway cups, and espresso cups to cappuccino mugs. It takes about 6 cups of grounds to make an espresso cup and saucer, which is 40% coffee and the rest of the material is 100% biodegradable.

Kaffeeform was founded when founder Julian Lechner realised how much coffee the people around him were drinking and that 99% of all coffee cups end up in the trash – the material takes a long time to decompose, and even paper cups take more than 20 years.

He also wondered if there was something to be done with the ground coffee waste. A small cafe produces around 4kg of waste daily, but imagine how much a Starbucks cafe would waste every single day.

Kaffeeform collects this waste from selected cafes around Berlin such as Oslo Kaffeebar via a bicycle collective. They then dry, preserve and compound the coffee grounds and the material that emerges gets shaped into coffee cups at small plants in Germany. The final touches are done in Berlin at a social workshop – from there they are sent to cafes, shops, and customers.

Coffee Leather – a material made from ground coffee beans

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Coffee grounds can also be extended to the textile and fashion industry. Coffee leather works as a sustainable alternative to traditional leather. The material is made by mixing waste coffee grounds with natural binders. It can biodegrade back to nature once it’s disposed of, creating a circular product.

Alice Genberg is a product designer and started experimenting with coffee leather when she realised how much of the coffee grounds were wasted at the small cafe she was running with her family. She used leftover coffee grounds from her family’s cafe to create her first prototype.

Now she’s experimenting with the material to make it more durable and help it reach a point where it can be used commercially.

Image by Alice Genberg

The goal of creating coffee leather is to extend the whole lifecycle of the production system. Instead of ending it after the brewing of the coffee, the lifecycle is lengthened because another product is developed from the waste material.

Innovation in the way we use materials and produce goods is needed because we are running out of raw resources. Alternatives make it possible for us to continue to develop quality products. Using coffee grounds as a raw resource is not standard yet but companies and individuals like Alice are setting an example for others. They show that it’s possible to develop products that are of the same quality as ones made from other, less sustainable materials.

Of course, there are also challenges in working with the material – it’s very sensitive to air and can dry out quickly. However, the texture is malleable and takes on surfaces easily. It therefore has the potential to become a standard material across a range of industries.

Developments of products like coffee leather and reusable coffee cups are exciting because they show that with some creativity and experimentation we can make the circular economy possible. And those learnings can be applied to other sustainable materials and products as well.