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  • Aasavari Joshi

The Circular Economy in Coffee Culture

For millions of people worldwide, a steaming cup of coffee is the ideal way to start the day. However, it's simple to overlook how much effort was put into bringing it to the table when taking that first sip. The production of coffee involves several essential labor-intensive procedures, starting with the farmers' cultivation and harvesting of the plants and continuing through milling and roasting which consumes a lot of energy, water, and land. This implies that the sustainability of the process from bean to cup is coming under more and more scrutiny. The heads of some of the world’s biggest coffee firms have noted this.

According to sustainability researcher Gunter Pauli, coffee production generates more than 23 million tons of garbage annually, from the pulp of fresh coffee cherries to the packaging that transports the roasted beans to baristas. Used coffee grounds, which we discard in the trash after each fresh drink, are the most obvious example of this waste at the consumer end of the supply chain. Most coffee drinkers don't give their used grounds much thought, but these dark, soggy remnants of ground coffee have sparked the creative minds of scientists, businesspeople, and social innovators from Melbourne to London to Seoul, sprouting ideas to reuse coffee grounds that have real implications for the coffee industry.

Companies, researchers, and interested customers are paving the way for the next phase of environmental sustainability across the world. The new paradigm of the circular economy is emerging, enabled by legislative reforms and cutting-edge technologies. It holds the prospect of restructuring the global economy and changing our relationship with the natural world, including the coffee tree. By turning waste into raw materials again for the subsequent production stage, the circular economy seeks to close the loop in our industrial system, lowering resource consumption and environmental degradation. According to Nina Goodrich, executive director of GreenBlue, a nonprofit organization based in Virginia devoted to the sustainable use of materials, "sustainability has progressed dramatically from the late 1990s to now. Even though the circular economy offers a better framework to assist businesses in integrating sustainability into their business plan, it is also the most challenging component”.

Nongovernmental organizations have steadily been successful in convincing companies to embrace a variety of sustainable practices over the previous few decades, which ultimately has also altered the speciality coffee market. For instance, according to the State of Sustainability Initiatives, a company that tracks global sustainability initiatives, in 2012, 40% of the coffee produced worldwide complied with voluntary sustainability criteria, up from 15% in 2008. At the same time, there has been a change in how for-profit companies regard sustainability. What was initially a relatively radical idea has developed into a set of practical managerial techniques that align with company goals and have, for the most part, been embraced by companies of all sizes.

Transitioning to a circular economy will be a more significant challenge. Still, just as the global speciality coffee sector pioneered in adopting sustainable production practices, it now stands poised to lead the food sector in closing the production loop to reduce resource costs and environmental damage. This concern for the environmental impact of coffee production isn’t just altruism or public spirit. Climate change and accompanying public concern present a real threat to the viability of the coffee industry, and consumers are increasingly concerned about the environmental and social impacts of the coffee they consume.

According to Silvia Torres, the Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung (HRNS) local project coordinator, "Organic fertilizer improves not only the soil condition but also the quality of the coffee and its market price." This can result in significant benefits, as in the case when a smallholder was able to sell his coffee for 90 euros per bag whereas the average in the region was 81.5 euros per bag. Additionally, the smallholder’s costs were around 55.35 euros per bag, while the average cost per bag in the area was 61.35 euros. Torres is confident that these findings give enough room for more recycling services that create jobs and a means of subsistence while also laying the groundwork for circular coffee production.

In Melbourne, Australia, Shane Genziuk founded Ground to Ground, a social venture that informs coffee enthusiasts about the many benefits of spent coffee grounds and links them with coffee shops that conveniently bag used grounds for pickup. He claims to have partnered with a company in Austin, Texas, and London to sign up close to 1,000 cafes. At its core, Ground to Ground is an initiative to promote increased recycling and waste reduction. Genziuk provides information to cafes about the many and varied uses for coffee grounds, including compost, de-icing material, hair color, and skin exfoliant, both online and in person. By agreeing to bag old grounds and provide them to patrons for no charge, participating cafes help prevent organic waste from ending up in landfills and raise public awareness of sustainability and the environmental effects of individual consumption.

There has been an increase in businesses leveraging coffee waste in recent years, including old grounds and wasted coffee cherry pulp, to make new products such as paper and fabrics. One of the most frequently mentioned cases is Bio-bean, a London-based company that has garnered a lot of media and investor attention for its plan to collect used coffee grounds from the city's cafes and turn them into biofuels by processing 55,000 tons of used coffee grounds annually in the United Kingdom. Their plant is built to convert used coffee grounds into biomass pellets, biodiesel, and BBQ coals. The business is even looking into the prospect of selling these pellets back to coffee shops so they may use them to roast coffee or boil water. This would create a genuine circular economy where waste would serve as the energy source for the production processes that produced it.

Nearly 172 million bags of coffee, or 10.32 million metric tons, were harvested globally in 2020. Brazil, the world's largest producer of coffee, produced 3.37 million tons of organic waste in 2017, in addition to several inorganic waste types. With these numbers, it is safe to say that low-cost, dependable, and sustainable systems for recycling organic waste from coffee manufacturing have a lot of potential if they can significantly increase overall productivity. With this in mind, it is simple to envision how guidelines on waste management in coffee production that are based on real-world experiences may become a potent tool for everyone in the industry as it moves toward a circular sustainable economy.


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