You might not know it, but a lot is lost with your morning coffee. Far from the craze a few years back about Fairtrade coffee, a new generation of products and initiatives are drawing on the many wasteful aspects that go into a cup of coffee to make this most popular of everyday beverages more sustainable and at the same time inspiring – and indeed beautiful. So often we focus only on the end product when in fact the many wasteful stages in the production of something like your morning café latte can in fact be starting points for entirely different end products and opportunities. From mushrooms to flour, coffee can give us much more. Potentially, our caffeine dependence could even help feed a growing world population.
After all the fact is 99.8% of the coffee bean fails to ends up in your morning coffee: the rest is lost along the way either at the production stage when the husks are dumped without any use or financial benefit or much further down the line at the espresso machine and all those coffee grounds dumped with each new espresso poured. The former alone becomes a staggering amount of waste to think about: 10 to 15 billion pounds of coffee produce per year is not only a loss of a potentially very valuable resource, but it is also a hazardous pollutant due to discharges of coffee cherry fruit entering into water systems and affecting ecosystems. This fruit is the shell that houses the coffee bean and it is routinely thrown away. In fact it is almost always disposed of because traditionally coffee producers have never paid any attention to it, not knowing as they did any real use for it.
Coffee Flour is a product that has been created by former Starbucks engineer Dan Belliveau when he realised that billions of pounds of coffee cherry were routinely going to waste. Starbucks is not one to miss out on something waiting to be discovered and we can presume this attitude rubbed off on Belliveau. With the keen eye of the entrepreneur and now backed by Intellectual Ventures, as well as investment from ECOM Agroindustrial Crop and Mercon Coffee Corp (two of the worlds biggest coffee industry giants) Belliveau has come up with an innovative product that literally makes something from what is otherwise normally thrown away. Coffee Flour – nutritious, gluten-free, and indeed tasty when used to make brownies, cookies, candy, corn and chocolate – is a product that would seem to work on many levels: not only can it potentially solve an environmental problem (aflatoxins as well as caffeine can leek from large build ups of discarded coffee cherries and leak into the groundwater and stifle ecosystems and local natural environments) but it can also supplement the income of coffee farmers around the world, solving a crisis such as that suffered by Mexican coffee growers after an 80% reduction of the 2013 harvest due to inclement weather. It manages to do this by offering an alternative income source from whatever little harvest such farmers do manage to gather. But as well as all this, the nutritious element of Coffee Flour would seem to make it almost a wonder product: one ounce has more fibre than whole grain wheat flour, more iron than Popeye’s spinach, more potassium than a banana and more protein than fresh kale, according to the company. This has huge potential to feed a growing world population.
At the other end of the spectrum exists a source for creating one food staple from the refuse created by another, coffee. Chidos, a company in Berlin, Germany has spent time gathering the used coffee grounds from cafes and restaurants in the city and used this organic waste to cultivate high quality gourmet mushrooms. The idea is quite simple: Chidos cycle around the city picking up coffee waste from partner locations and then mix this with mushroom mycelium in bags which they hang in their specially prepared cellar. Within days delicious oyster mushrooms are sprouting, ready to be sold to restaurants and shops. Also on offer is a range of products that people can buy for their home use, Mushroom Growing Kits which act as great gifts for example and allow you to grow your own mushrooms at home. As part of their drive for an innovative and inspiring business model, in line with the philosophy of the Blue Economy (derived from the book of the same title by Gunter Pauli) €1 of each Mushroom Growing Kit sold goes to the “Green Garden Project” in Kenya, a project for self-sufficiency through organic agriculture.
One person who looked at Chidos and started to wonder what else coffee waste could be used for was Julian Lechner, a young German product designer who studied in Bolzano. While still at university he endeavoured to put a practical use to all that coffee Italy is famous for drinking and developed a way of making a design material from the unwanted used grinds. It seemed intuitive that such a raw product could be turned into a malleable type of natural plastic – all he had to do was find a way. 19% of coffee grinds are minerals, which for example are good for the skin when applied through a moisturiser, but the problem was how to bind them together into something durable. He started by drying them out and warming them so the grinds would lose all their moisture and he could see what their properties were. He looked then at old recipes of traditional sorts of glue and realised that a form of caramelisation could somehow treat these in a way similarly to glue he could then use moulds to form design products. These would have various hues and lightness, depending on the amount of resin and coffee. The result is a unique material that even has the faint aroma of coffee and with this Lechner has gone on to make even an espresso cup and saucer, demonstrations how a waste product can truly go full circle.
These are just a number of the varied uses coffee waste is being put to, helping to expand the notion of what is disposable and what can be actually recovered and put to good use. There really does seem to be no bounds: just recently results by scientists from the University of Bath in the UK showed that they could make biofuel from coffee waste, which in turn can power a car. Basically oil is extracted from the grinds and then a process called ‘transesterification’ transform this into biodiesel. So not only could coffee waste help feed a growing population but also help fuel the cars we drive.