Circular economy: How can used coffee grounds be reused?

Matteo Pavoni
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June 2, 2021
used coffee grounds

After coffee has been roasted, ground, and extracted, consumers are left with wet coffee grounds that are typically dumped into general waste and sent to landfill. According to some estimates, around eighteen million tonnes of used coffee grounds go to landfill each year.

However, when coffee grounds break down in landfill sites they emit methane, a greenhouse gas up to 28 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. This poses serious problems to the planet due to global warming.

Consequently, a number of organisations have gone in search of innovative ways in which to reuse coffee grounds and prevent them going to landfill. As well as compost and biofuel, they’ve been used to make a range of goods, from exfoliators to football shirts.

Read on to find out more about how coffee grounds can be reused and the benefits this has for specialty roasters.

Read next: What Is The Carbon Footprint Of A Cup Of Coffee?

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What are used coffee grounds and why are they a problem?

Used coffee grounds are a waste product made from the brewing of freshly ground coffee. On average between 11g and 14g of coffee are required to make one cup, generating wet grounds that cannot be brewed again and are typically disposed of along with general waste.

It’s estimated that in Australia alone, around 65,000 tonnes of used coffee grounds are generated each year, the vast majority of which go to landfill. Although as organic matter this may not seem like an issue, it can have considerable implications for the environment.

The main concern is methane. When coffee grounds break down in landfill, they emit methane (CH4), a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Studies show that over a 20-year period, just one kilogram of methane warms the planet as much as 80 times more than the same amount of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Experts have been warning about the devastating effects of global warming on the planet for decades. But it’s only really in the last few years that people have started to treat the issue seriously and take genuine measures to improve the situation.

In the coffee industry, there are concerns that droughts, diseases, and adverse weather conditions brought about by rising global temperatures could affect coffee production. According to recent research in the journal Climatic Change, about half the land around the world currently used to produce arabica coffee could be unproductive by 2050.

Therefore, tackling the problem of used coffee grounds is not only the responsibility of consumers, but also specialty roasters and café owners who make their living from roasting and selling coffee.

circular economy

Promoting a circular economy

A circular economy is a model that involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible. In this way, the life cycle of products is extended.

In practice, a circular economy is based on minimising waste. When a product reaches the end of its life, its materials are kept within the economy wherever possible. These can be productively used again and again, thereby creating further value.

A well-organised circular economy model offers significant benefits to both manufacturers and consumers. According to a European Parliament paper, measures including waste prevention, ecodesign, and re-use could save EU companies money while also reducing total annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Moving towards a circular economy also offers benefits such as reducing pressure on the environment, limiting the use of raw materials, increasing competitiveness, stimulating innovation, boosting economic growth, and creating jobs.

There are a number of ways in which specialty coffee roasters can promote a circular economy. For example, adopting compostable packaging materials, such as polylactic acid (PLA) and kraft paper, or selling used jute bags as decorative items to consumers.

Encouraging the reuse of used coffee grounds is another highly effective way of promoting a circular economy. Not only does it keep coffee in circulation rather than sending it to landfill, it also helps cut down waste elsewhere, such as when used as a natural fertiliser.

used coffee grounds

Used coffee grounds: How can they be reused?

Compost

As a nitrogen-rich source, wet coffee grounds are commonly used in gardens as compost, or mulch. As they are considered a “green” composting material, they must be balanced out by “brown” materials such as dry leaves and newspaper to avoid bad smells and a lack of heat energy.

Pesticides & fertilisers

Using coffee grounds as a fertiliser carries a number of benefits, such as helping drainage, aiding water retention, and improving aeration in the soil. The used coffee grounds also help microorganisms that stimulate plant growth, as well as attracting earthworms. 

A number of gardeners have reported used coffee grounds to keep slugs and snails away from plants. The theory is that the caffeine in the grounds acts as a natural repellent. Some commercial pesticides can be damaging to the environment, particularly if they enter water sources such as rivers. Therefore, using coffee grounds as an organic pesticide helps reduce the chance of contamination.

Biofuels

In recent years, more and more research has been poured into reusing coffee grounds as biofuel. One of the leading companies on this front is bio-bean, a UK-based company founded in 2013 by UCL graduate Arthur Kay.

Bio-bean collects used coffee grounds from a range of businesses, including Costa Coffee, and takes it to its purpose-built coffee recycling factory. The grounds are sifted and dried before a process of evaporation extracts the coffee oil from the grounds.

This coffee oil is then processed to create a B20 biofuel by mixing it with diesel. B20 refers to fuel made from 20% biocomponents, such as fats, oils, and agricultural products. In London, a select number of buses are powered using biofuel made from coffee oil.

Consumer products

Football shirts, skin exfoliators, dishwasher-safe espresso cups – with the right expertise, there are a range of products that can be made from used coffee grounds. Large fashion labels such as Timberland and American Eagle have started using used coffee grounds to produce some of their clothes, while one jeweller in the UK creates pieces of jewellery containing 70% recycled coffee grounds.

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Reducing the impact on the environment of used coffee grounds is imperative. Not only is it up to consumers to take action, it is also the responsibility of café owners and specialty roasters.

From compost to biofuels, used coffee grounds have a number of uses that will prevent them going to landfill and emitting methane into the atmosphere. Cafés can sign up to schemes such as First Mile to recycle their used coffee grounds or even offer them directly to customers as compost.

This shows a commitment to promoting a circular economy and reducing the environmental impact of the coffee industry. At MTPak Coffee, we can help roasters and café owners even further by providing fully sustainable coffee packaging.

Our range of recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable materials can be customised according to your needs, from artwork and pouch type, to degassing valves and resealable zippers.

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

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Circular economy: How can used coffee grounds be reused?
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