The wonderful thing about third wave coffee—aside from the amazing beverage itself—is how ethical it’s making the industry. With specialty coffee’s focus on origin, we know that we’re helping coffee-producing countries with every delicious cup we consume.
Except, it turns out that coffee production isn’t actually that green. In fact, it generates a significant amount of water pollution, damaging coffee-producing countries’ water sources and leading to a loss of profit for manufacturers.
According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), waste water from the water milling processing of coffee has been found to contaminate up to 40 times more water than your average urban sewer wastage. This level of wastage has a huge impact.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way. More and more uses are being discovered for coffee byproducts, meaning not only can we protect the environment, but coffee can further provide opportunities for economic growth. What’s not to like?
Lee este artículo en español ¿Cómo Podemos Minimizar el Desperdicio en la Industria Cafetera?
Coffee cherries growing in Cauca, southwestern Colombia. Credit: Neil Palmer
Waste in Coffee Production
So why is coffee production so bad for the environment?
Well, let’s consider all the parts of the coffee cherry. There’s the pulp, mucilage, parchment, silverskin and bean. Us coffee lovers are just interested in how we can extract that magic bean; the other four parts, more often than not, just get discarded.
In coffee producing countries, many of which are lower-income countries, this is a huge issue. Often their water wastage systems are unable to cope with the waste that’s being dumped into the water, resulting in water contamination.
But wait, where did water come into this?
Well, this problem occurs when the coffee’s washed processed. The coffee cherry is removed by a wet mill and then soaked in water. During this time, the fruit mucilage is broken down and any remaining fruit comes away from the bean. This fruit remains in the water, leaking nutrients and causing something called eutrophication.
Eutrophication is the excessive richness of nutrients in a lake or any other body of water, which can happen in any area of agriculture. The danger of eutrophication is that it can unbalance the growth of organisms, such as algae, which can then cause a lack of oxygen in the water.
A study undertaken by the Environmental Protection Agency on the effects of eutrophication on the river water in Ethiopia found that water downstream from a coffee plant had significantly less oxygen and a rise in nitrogen levels—to the point that it could be deemed dangerous to humans.
Coffee cherries being washed before they are turned into fertilizer. Credit: Ludger001
How Can Farmers Make Use of Coffee Wastage?
Yet those discarded parts of the coffee cherry are more useful than we realised. Researcher Habtamu Lemma Didanna from Wolaita Sodo University, Ethiopia discovered that the pulp is an extremely valuable resource—particularly for farmers. Didanna found that coffee pulp could replace up to 20% of the commercial concentrates used in cattle feed with no subsequent difference in weight gain or nutritional content. Doing this provided a 30% saving in costs of animal feed, meaning coffee pulp has serious potential to boost agricultural economy in coffee-growing countries.
And it’s not just cattle farmers that win from this situation; coffee pulp, once dried and partially fermented, is also a brilliant substrate for growing exotic mushrooms. Mushrooms such as shiitake normally take months to grow—but, with a little help from coffee byproducts, it can take just a few weeks. This makes them a great source of secondary income; according to the New Agriculturist, struggling coffee farmers in Tanzania have boosted their income by selling high-value oyster mushrooms. Due to the mushrooms’ quick coffee-aided growth, they can be grown and harvested all year round. The sale of them has helped fund school fees and the addition of livestock to farmers’ land.
Mushrooms growing in a used coffee grounds kit from a company in California. Credit: Ashstar01
How Can You Minimise Coffee Waste at Home?
While coffee lovers in non-producing countries may struggle to get coffee byproducts straight from the farm, it doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. We too can utilise our green fingers and get growing some mushrooms. Yes, even us city-dwellers can do this—mushrooms are perfect for windowsill gardening. Many independent coffee shops have started giving away bags of their used coffee for this very purpose, as are specialty mushroom companies such as Woodfruit.
On a more industrial level, Bio-Bean in London has developed a technique to turn used coffee grounds into an advanced biofuel, as well as biomass pellets. They claim that biofuel is capable of powering vehicles, while the biomass pellets are able to heat homes and shops. In fact, they hope that one day their biomass pellets may even heat the very shops the waste coffee came from.
The finished coffee pellet product from Bio-Bean. Credit: Bio-Bean
The potential power of Bio-Bean is phenomenal. Not only is it providing eco-friendly heating options, but it also offers a way to significantly cut down London’s coffee waste. Projections show that Bio-Bean should be able to repurpose 30,000 tonnes of the city’s discarded coffee. To put that in perspective, it’s estimated that London wastes 200,000 tonnes of coffee. We’re talking about a 15% reduction in waste—just through the power of coffee.
The collection of waste from Costa coffee to be recycled by Bio-Bean. Credit: Bio-Bean
An inside shot from the Bio-Bean labs. Credit: Bio-Bean
What’s the Future of Coffee Wastage?
For too long now, coffee-lovers have looked past the issues of coffee wastage—but it appears that change is on the horizon. With the rise of companies such as Bio-Bean, as well as more and more research being done into the applications of coffee byproducts, it does not seem completely unreasonable to suggest that in the not too distant future, we may even see coffee shops and farms running off their own wastage.
Inspiring? You bet! So now, fellow coffee lovers, let’s take up our grounds and get upcycling!
Kenyan women from the Mbini Self-Help Group. Credit: McKay Savage
Written by M. Fury and edited by T. Newton.
Feature Photo Credit: McKay Savage
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