Sustainability in Speciality Coffee

I wrote this in 2016 after the third Manchester Coffee Festival; I am only now publishing. Not really re-edited it and I guess some of my thoughts may be different now. Always was a brain dump more than anything else. Anyhow, still a piece that can get us thinking about sustainability in speciality coffee. I’ve included some thoughts from Vegware’s Kate Chambers from 2017.

What I’ve learnt, what I’ve discovered, what I’m thinking

So the big thing in the news is the amount of non-recyclable disposable cups that just go in the bin. At the Manchester Coffee Festival, Vegware’s Kate Chambers spoke about how regular disposable cup cannot be recycled because of the three elements that make up the cup – paper, plastic coating and food waste (the coffee or tea). These components, as yet, cannot be separated and be recycled individually (Kate – In the last year, there has been some progress. There is now a company offering to recycle plastic-lined coffee cups in the UK: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-39479006
This service is expensive, and also does not recycle cups into new coffee cups, but in to a host of different low-grade plastic products: http://www.simplycups.co.uk/). Compostable cups on the other hand all fall into food waste – paper, vegetable based coating and coffee/tea. Over time they should deteriorate, even if they end up in a landfill (Kate – really interesting misconceptions about what happens to materials in landfill. Have a look at the work that has been done excavating modern landfills: http://www.nytimes.com/1992/08/13/nyregion/seeking-the-truth-in-refuse.html?pagewanted=all
Modern landfills are designed to stop materials breaking down, since they do not have any oxygen to start the process. It is beneficial that materials do not break down in landfill, because then methane is not released into the atmosphere). However, wouldn’t it be good if these compostable goods had another use after the drink? Speaking to one of the local allotments around me we have discussed giving what used compostable cups are left with us to use to plant seedlings (Kate- Has this local allotment considered community composting? In-vessel composting is the preferred treatment method for Vegware and food waste after use). These cups will disintegrate in the ground allowing the seedling to grow into a plant. Using non-compostable cups, the plastic deteriorates and goes into the soil – not good. Compostable cups will actually add some nutrients back into the soil. We have also organised (the classic) giving our used espresso grounds to the allotments to use as compost. Coffee grounds are also a good deterrent (ref) for slugs.

However, what is even better than compostable cups though are reusable cups like Ecoffee Cup and KeepCups that are specifically designed for coffee (and tea). But how do you get people to use these cups? Easy, customers buy a reusable cup from you and get a free drink first time, and then afterwards they receive a meaniful discount each time they reuse the cup. Something like an Americano for £1.50 compared to £2 in a disposable cup (or say 2.20 from 2.60 with higher overheads). You’d have to the maths, but it’s about doing reusable cups at a sizable profit, remember less would be spent on takeaway cups.
Another consideration is the bags our beans come in. I thinking of asking my regular roaster if they can reuse my old bags; as far as I know it shouldn’t affect the beans if previous the coffee had not been ground. I also recently discovered Biotrē® Eco Coffee bags by PBi. Biotrē® Film is composed of 60% (by weight) biodegradable materials made from renewable resources such as wood pulp, the other 40% will breakdown in 5 to 10 years. This is a lot lot better for the environment than regular bags.
Over the last few months I have worked at several different places doing café work, while waiting for the business to start. I’ve discovered that recycling is a bit of nightmare, both in terms of it not being done, but also the lack of ease of which to do it. I believe it is imperative that the whole staff team are on board. It should be a key part of supervisions with staff (do we do that in coffee houses?). It is also important to remember that coffee houses can be busy environments, it has to be easy or it won’t get done.
(Kate – Good recycling really depends on what materials you want to recycle! So many of us are buying products in low-quality plastic, e.g. films and mixed material, which do not have any value in recycling. Also, we are facing a recycling issue because China – who has been recycling the majority of our plastic/paper – will not accept any more waste or recycling from any country in 2018: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/china-bans-foreign-waste-but-what-will-happen-to-the-worlds-recycling/
This is going to cause even more of a nightmare! I absolutely agree that REDUCING packaging waste is the best thing to do. Your ideas of encouraging reusable cups is great.)

I think it’s amazing that Heart and Graft based in Salford use @ErrandTrike to deliver their coffee to coffee houses in Salford and Manchester.

I wonder whether a lot of cafes/coffee houses realise that councils, for an additional charge, will organise your waste into the correct recyclable materials for you. This means you can just put everything in the same bin and not worry.

Environmentally sound cleaning materials – I hate how much blue roll we get through in the catering industry.

Milk, I’m at a loss here. Matt Perger once did a post on his blog about making cheese from waste milk, that’s a lot of cheese. I suppose making sure you use the exact amount of milk is the best idea, but this is not always practical, you get too much foam not concentrating, splitting milk from larger pitchers. We could top up pitchers and reheat, but this is understandably frowned upon, especially if it’s not extremely busy.

I really like espresso machines that have eco where you can turn off heat to group heads at quiet periods, for example, the Conti Monte Carlo and San Remo Verde.

So to end holistically about sustainability it’s not just about disposable cups!