How can we make coffee culture sustainable?

29 : 11 : 2017 Sustainability : Drinks : Coffee
Aromas in Coffee by Ryan Romanes Aromas in Coffee by Ryan Romanes

The UK produces 500,000 tonnes of waste coffee grounds every year, most of which is disposed of at landfill sites where it emits methane, a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Josh Walker, journalist, The Future Laboratory

Coffee will soon be fuelling more than workers in the UK capital as plans to use a new biofuel that features waste coffee grounds to help power some of London’s buses were announced earlier this month. Created by blending oil extracted from coffee waste with diesel, clean technology company Bio-bean claims to have produced enough coffee oil to power one bus for a year.

While the innovation is undoubtedly a step forward for sustainability, particularly in relation to waste management solutions, whether it will help to tackle the coffee sector’s notoriously wasteful practices is yet to be seen.

According to Bio-bean, the UK produces 500,000 tonnes of waste coffee grounds every year, most of which is disposed of at landfill sites where it emits methane, a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And that’s just the waste produced by the coffee itself.

According to the British Coffee Association, consumers in the UK drink approximately 55m cups of coffee every day, yet only 0.1% of takeaway coffee cups were recycled in the UK in 2016. Figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats show how the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs bought more than 2.5 disposable coffee cups over the past five years for use in its restaurants and cafés, despite pledging to address plastic waste.

It’s clear that the coffee industry has a problem. But companies such as Bio-bean provide a glimmer of hope, offering a potential solution to the coffee catastrophe, while simultaneously helping to spread awareness among consumers and the wider industry about the scale and impact of the issue.

And it doesn’t stop there. Even some varieties of coffee capsules pose a significant threat to the environment, with 20bn coffee capsules sent to landfill sites each year, according to eco-capsule brand Halo.

It’s clear that the coffee industry has a problem. But companies such as Bio-bean provide a glimmer of hope, offering a potential solution to the coffee catastrophe, while simultaneously helping to spread awareness among consumers and the wider industry about the scale and impact of the issue. As we explore in our Sustainability Futures presentation, brands are increasingly educating consumers about the aftercare of their products to help create more sustainable cities, and are launching all manner of initiatives to shine a spotlight on the relationship between people, products and the planet.

Pret a Manger is another brand exploring waste management solutions in its stores. ‘We’re thinking of increasing the discount for bringing your own cup from £0.25 to £0.50,’ CEO Clive Schlee announced in a recent tweet. ‘Our organic filter coffee would cost just £0.49! I’d love to hear your thoughts.’ With potential solutions from consumers ranging from collapsible coffee cups and unlimited refill schemes to loyalty programmes and educational in-store signage, people are evidently ready for change.

Bio-bean and Pret a Manger’s sustainability efforts stand out from the crowd not just due to their innovative approach, but because they tap into consumers’ desire to lead a more sustainable life, with the former alleviating their concerns about pollution on their daily commute and the latter communicating the financial gains to be made from embracing a more sustainable coffee cup model.

For more on the strategies your brand can adopt to move towards a more sustainable future, book our Sustainability Futures presentation.