Green beans: 5 sustainable coffee innovations

Coffee. It got you out of bed this morning, it's an excuse to meet an old friend and it propels you through those late-night deadlines. We all love coffee - 1.6 billion cups of it are drunk every day - and supplying that demand has made it the second most traded commodity on the planet after oil.

However, like oil, coffee can have a devastating impact on the environment. From the water used in its production, to the air-miles involved in flying it round the world, to the methane emitted by waste coffee grounds, coffee is an under-the-radar climate disaster. 

But coffee is also big business, and like the rest of the business world in this post-Paris era, efforts are being made to make the industry more sustainable.

Over the past few months, edie has reported on a variety of interesting innovations around your cup o’ Joe. Here are five of the best…

1) Turning coffee grounds into biofuel

For global warming, waste coffee grounds are both the problem and the solution. If sent to landfill, one tonne of coffee waste can produce around 14 tonnes of CO2. However, the unique attributes of waste coffee means it should never be sent to landfill.

Coffee is highly calorific – more so than wood – and full of oil which can have a variety of applications. What’s more, coffee grounds are all controlled behind the counter by the barista – unlike, say, teabags, which are usually left in the cup and then dumped in the bin by the drinker.

Taking advantage of these characteristics is UK start-up Bio-bean – the first company in the world to industrialise the process of recycling waste coffee into biofuel.

bio-bean – Powered By Coffee from bio-bean Ltd. on Vimeo.

Currently, Bio-bean produces biomass briquettes and pellets, but founder Arthur Kay says it will be producing biofuel in a matter of “months rather than years”. Kay expects Bio-bean to be recycling around 50,000 tonnes of coffee grounds a year by the end of 2016 – equivalent to 10% of the UK’s coffee waste. And he says this type of capacity is just the beginning.

“From a third party perspective, there’s got to be a very good reason for a coffee shop or chain not to do this,” says Kay. “Every single one of our clients works with us because it saves them money – it can cut 50-70% off the costs of their waste disposal and fuel consumption.

“Essentially, by NOT doing this, you are paying extra to damage the environment”.

Kay added that Bio-bean is already trialling or contracted with “every major coffee company in the UK”.

2) Methane storage

Used coffee beans could be a simple and cheap alternative for methane storage, new scientific research has found.

Scientists from the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea found that heating coffee beans to 700-900C could produce stable levels of carbon capture, capable of absorbing 7% of the coffee beans’ body weight in methane in just 24 hours.

Methane has a global warming potential 34 times higher than carbon dioxide and methane capture and storage provides a double environmental return; it removes a harmful greenhouse gas from the atmosphere which can then be used as a fuel that is cleaner than other fossil fuels.

The Ulsan researchers are hopeful that the methane from used coffee beans can be used as a clean energy fuel for cars in the future.

3) Wastewater to energy

One of the most wasteful parts of the coffee bean supply chain is wet-mill processing, which is done to remove the coffee bean from its fruit.

The process creates large amounts of coffee waste water which pollutes groundwater and releases a considerable amount of greenhouse gases. However much like waste coffee it can be a very useful resource if treated correctly.

Back in 2010, UTZ Certified, an international certification programme for sustainable agriculture, launched the Energy from Coffee Wastewater project in Central America.

Under the initiative, bio-digesters are installed on coffee farms, where they can convert the waste-water into biogas which can be used to power stoves for the farmers or even factory machinery.

4) Slashing water use

Shockingly, producing a single cup of coffee requires 136 litres of water – more than five times the amount needed to produce a cup of tea. Part of that water consumption comes in the aforementioned wet-mill processing phase, but the majority comes when watering the plant itself.

Indeed, coffee is almost exclusively grown in parts of the world where farmers have yet to benefit from big data, drones and other yield-increasing farming techniques. As a result, Nestle predicts that on average, coffee farmers use 60% more water than they need to during the dry season that runs from November to April.

To help conserve water and save farmers time and energy, Nestle introduced a programme in Vietnam which provided low-cost water-saving tools that farmers find easy to understand and share with neighbours. For example, inserting a plastic bottle upside-down in the soil and observing condensation levels in the bottle can tell a farmer the soil’s water content.

Farmers were also taught to use an empty can as a rain collector to inform them how much rainwater the crops are receiving. For example, if a standard milk can is one-sixth full of rain water, a farmer knows his trees nearby have received around 100 litres of water. 

5) Responsible packaging

One of the most common criticisms of the coffee industry is the sheer amount of packaging involved – from coffee pods to takeaway cups, as well as traditional tubs and bags.

However, the industry is taking steps to rectify the issue. McDonalds recently joined Costa and John Lewis as members of the Simply Cups recycling scheme, which aims to recycle takeaway paper cups at scale for the first time in the UK.

Coffee brand Kenco also recently set up 100 recycling hubs across the UK, where consumers can drop off their coffee packaging waste that local authorities won’t collect.

A British plastics manufacturer has also developed a compostable coffee pod, as a sustainable alternative to the aluminium pods made popular by Nespresso.

Brad Allen

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